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Turn on, Tune In, Get Old: Aging Baby Boomers Bring Drug Habits into Middle Age

BOOMER-WSJ

Older adults are abusing drugs, getting arrested for drug offenses and dying from drug overdoses at increasingly higher rates. These surges have come as the 76 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reach late middle age. 

UPLAND, Calif.— Zusha Elinson reports: From the time he was a young man coming of age in the 1970s, Mike Massey could have served as a poster child for his generation, the baby boomers. He grew his hair long to the dismay of his father, surfed, played in rock bands and says he regularly got high on marijuana and cocaine.

“I thought, no big deal—my knee hurts and they’re prescription drugs. The fact of the matter was I was abusing them the second day I had them.”

— Mike Massey

The wild times receded as he grew older. In his 30s, he stopped using drugs altogether, rose into executive positions with the plumbers and pipe fitters union, bought a house in this Los Angeles suburb and started a family. But at age 50, Mr. Massey injured his knee running. He took Vicodin for the pain but soon started using pills heavily, mixing the opioids with alcohol, he said.

“After surgeries to repair his knee and an arm he also injured, prescriptions brought him a steady supply of pain pills. He would down about 40 every day while drinking heavily. By that time, he had become executive director of the trust fund and several associated businesses.”

“It reminded me of getting high and getting loaded,” said Mr. Massey, now 58 years old, who went into recovery and stopped using drugs and alcohol in 2013. “Your mind never forgets that.”

[Read the full text here, at the Wall Street Journal]

Today, the story of this balding, middle-aged executive continues to reflect that of his generation.

Older adults are abusing drugs, getting arrested for drug offenses and dying from drug overdoses at increasingly higher rates. These surges have come as the 76 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reach late middle age. Facing the pains and losses connected to aging, boomers, who as youths used drugs at the highest rates of any generation, are once again—or still—turning to drugs.

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The trend has U.S. health officials worried. The sharp increase in overdose deaths among older adults in particular is “very concerning,” said Wilson Compton,deputy director for the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The rate of death by accidental drug overdose for people aged 45 through 64 increased 11-fold between 1990, when no baby boomers were in the age group, and 2010, when the age group was filled with baby boomers, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality data. That multiple of increase was greater than for any other age group in that time span.

“He is a very valued employee and does a lot for the organization. He was worth the effort of saving.”

— Sid Stolper, Mr. Massey’s boss for 21 years

The surge has pushed the accidental overdose rate for these late middle age adults higher than that of 25- to 44-year-olds for the first time. More than 12,000 boomers died of accidental drug overdoses in 2013, the most recent data available. That is more than the number that died that year from either car accidents or influenza and pneumonia, according to the CDC.

“Generally, we thought of older individuals of not having a risk for drug abuse and drug addiction,” Dr. Compton said. “As the baby boomers have aged and brought their habits with them into middle age, and now into older adult groups, we are seeing marked increases in overdose deaths.”Still Turning On

Baby Boomers are developing drug problems at increasingly higher rates. What is the profile of a Boomer at risk? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer. Illustration: Arielle Ray

“Rehab centers that were designed for younger people are adjusting to the new clientele. Getting rid of bunk beds, hiring more experienced addiction counselors and providing medical care on-site are some measures being taken.”

Experts say the drug problem among the elderly has been caused by the confluence of two key factors: a generation with a predilection for mind-altering substances growing older in an era of widespread opioid painkiller abuse. Pain pills follow marijuana as the most popular ways for aging boomers to get high, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which conducts an annual national survey on drug use. Opioid painkillers also are the drug most often involved in overdoses, followed by antianxiety drugs, cocaine and heroin.

Wall Street Journal interviews with dozens of older drug users and recovering addicts revealed an array of personal stories behind the trend. Some had used drugs their entire lives and never slowed down. Others had used drugs when they were younger, then returned to them later in life after a divorce, death in the family or job loss.

“Amid prescription painkiller abuse, old-age aches and pains are treated with acupuncture and nonaddictive painkillers. Another change is therapy sessions that are designed for older adults.”

“If you have a trigger, and your youth is caught up in that Woodstock mentality, you’re going to revert back,” said Jamie Huysman, 60, clinical adviser to the senior program at Caron Treatment Centers, a residential drug treatment organization that plans to break ground this summer on a $10 million medical center in Pennsylvania catering to older adults. “We were pretty conditioned that we could be rebellious, that we could take drugs, and so this is how we respond today.”

Drug-rehabilitation programs are grappling with how to handle the boom in older patients. More than 5.7 million people over the age of 50 will need substance-abuse treatment by the year 2020, according to estimates from government researchers. Meanwhile, hospitals have seen a sharp increase in the number of older adults admitted for drug-related health problems, government statistics show.

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“Over the past decade, illicit drug use among people over 50 has increased at the same time that the rate for teens—the group that draws the most public concern when it comes to substance abuse—has declined, according to the federal government’s annual survey on drug use.”

“We’re still in the process of figuring out: How do we ensure we have a strong workforce that can address this, and the appropriate settings to address this?” said Peter Delany, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Over the past decade, illicit drug use among people over 50 has increased at the same time that the rate for teens—the group that draws the most public concern when it comes to substance abuse—has declined, according to the federal government’s annual survey on drug use. A similar pattern exists for drug arrests: rates fell in nearly every younger age group in the country between 1997 and 2012, but not for those between the ages of 45 and 64.

“The rate of drug use among boomers has fallen significantly as the cohort has aged, but it is about triple the percentage of people in the previous generation who reported drug use in their older years.”

Boomers have always ranked high on the charts that measure drug use. In 1979, high school seniors, born in 1961, set the record for self-reported illicit drug use in the past year, according to an annual national survey called Monitoring the Future. The rate of drug use among boomers has fallen significantly as the cohort has aged, but it is about triple the percentage of people in the previous generation who reported drug use in their older years.

Neil Howe, a historian and author of several books on generational trends, said that boomers have always stood out for their willingness to break with convention and take risks, which included using drugs.

“They themselves continue to behave in a less inhibited fashion even as younger generations turn away from that type of risk taking,” he said.

(Rates of major sexually transmitted diseases have also increased for people over 45 in recent years, according to the CDC.)

Rehab centers that were designed for younger people are adjusting to the new clientele….(read more)

WSJ

Write to Zusha Elinson at zusha.elinson@wsj.com

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2 Comments on “Turn on, Tune In, Get Old: Aging Baby Boomers Bring Drug Habits into Middle Age”

  1. I’m never sure what to think of this kind of data.

    For one, I wonder about the accuracy of self-report data. Maybe previous generations were less willing to admit to drug use. Also, with earlier generations, some drugs now illegal were legal. As such, maybe the oldest generations got used to being addicted to legal prescribed drugs. Some states with high rates of seniors do have high rates of prescription drug abuse.

    On top of that, there are all the problems with the drug wars, as discussed by Johann Hari in Chasing the Scream. For example, illegalizing drugs or alcohol increases its potency and addiction/alcoholism rates because of how black markets operate.

  2. […] the articles about the middle age mortality have blamed it on increasing drug use. There might be some truth to that. If one really wants to understand that problem, the best analysis available is Johann […]


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