Substance abuse and addiction are often viewed primarily as a young person’s problem. This makes some degree of sense, since drug and alcohol use typically reach their highest levels among younger adults in their early to mid-20s. However, in reality, you can develop significant substance problems even after you pass age 50. In fact, as America’s population grows older, drug and alcohol problems appear more and more frequently in people in the second half of their lives. Not coincidentally, increased exposure to substance-related issues comes with increased odds of requiring some form of substance treatment. In fact, current evidence indicates that adults in their 50s now seek treatment for opioid-related substance problems more often than members of any other age group.
America’s Aging Population
America’s population is steadily getting older, and experts expect this trend to pick up pace over the next several decades. According to federal census figures issued in 2014, there were roughly 44.7 million people in the country age 65 or older in 2013. This number equals just over 14 percent of the total population. By the year 2060, the 65-plus population will more than double to approximately 98 million individuals. Just 25 years from now, the segment of the population age 65 or older will jump from today’s 14 percent to just under 22 percent. Changes in the average age of Baby Boomers, born in the wake of World War 2, mostly account for this ongoing shift in the number of older Americans.
Substance Use Among Baby Boomers
People in the Baby Boom generation were born between 1946 and 1964. In the present day, the members of this generation now range in age from roughly 51 to 69. For many baby boomers, the transition into adulthood occurred during the peak years of the 1960s counterculture movement, when drug experimentation became more socially acceptable and drug intake rates among the young began to rise. Even when counterculture influences started to drop off in the 1970s and 80s, substance use remained a social norm for large numbers of Baby Boomers.
Unlike older adults from previous generations, Baby Boomers have largely maintained their drug and alcohol intake while passing through middle age and entering their senior years. Compared to people from earlier eras, if you are currently in your 50s or 60s, you have a higher chance of consuming a broad range of drugs—including marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine and illegal opioids like heroin—at some point during your lifetime. You also have elevated odds of currently having problems stemming from the misuse of prescription opioid painkillers or some other type of prescription medication.
Increased Odds of Seeking Opioid Treatment
In November 2015, researchers from New York University published a study that looked at the rate of opioid treatment in American adults age 50 or older. The study focused on residents of New York City, but its findings likely also apply to older Americans in general. Data for the project came from the records of tens of thousands of people who received opioid treatment in the city between 1996 and 2012.
After reviewing these records, the researchers found that adults between 50 and 59 now have higher chances of being enrolled in opioid-related treatment than the members of any other age group. In 1996, just 7.8 percent of all opioid treatment went to people in their 50s. By 2012, that number had more than quadrupled to 35.9 percent. In sheer percentage terms, people in their 60s have experienced an even greater increase in their participation in opioid treatment. In 1996, just 1.5 percent of all people in treatment were age 60 to 69. By 2012, people in this age range accounted for 12 percent of all individuals treated for opioid-related problems.
Willingness to Participate in Opioid Treatment
In large part, the increase in the number of older adults seeking opioid treatment is a predictable necessity. Simply put, since Baby Boomers use drugs at a higher rate than previous generations, they have greater chances of needing substance abuse treatment. Since opioid addiction commonly produces recurring or chronic health issues, they will likely continue to need some form of help for years or decades to come if affected.
There is also a bright side to this situation. Compared to younger people with substance abuse problems, older people typically have a much better chance of recognizing the seriousness of their situation and actively seeking help. An adult over the age of 50 will probably have more motivation to address their misuse of opioids and establish a substance-free lifestyle. They therefore also have a good chance of successfully completing a treatment program that focuses on opioid-related issues.