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Boomers and Overdosing

Boomers and Overdosing
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Photo credit: Photopin Creative Commons

By Mary Jane Horton

Some of us remember the sixties and early seventies: drugs and sex, and a feeling of newfound freedom that pervaded the culture. Back to the drugs. Many people partook in those days because it was what everyone did. Others found a drug and stuck to it. And now for some, that unedited tendency to take drugs. To experiment, is coming back to haunt them.

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, many people never stopped. Or they stopped and started. Today, older adults are abusing drugs and dying from drug overdoses at higher and higher rates. Seventy-six million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, people who used more drugs than any other generation in history, are once again—or still—turning to drugs.

The Wall Street Journal crunched numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),, and found that the death rate by accidental drug overdose for people aged 45 through 64 increased by a factor of 11 between 1990 and 2010, when the age group was filled with baby boomers. That rate of increase was greater than for any other age group in that time span. That is more than the number that died that year from either car accidents or influenza and pneumonia, according to the CDC.

And it’s not getting better

In 2013 alone more than 12,000 baby boomers died from overdose-related deaths, according to the CDC, with opioids being most common substance involved in overdoses, following by anti-anxiety medications, cocaine, and heroin. The federal government reports that increase in substance use disorders for baby boomers will result in more than 5.7 million people over the age of 50 needing addiction treatment by 2020.

And the same attitude as they had in their early lives—when the culture was more of less supporting of it—is their downfall. “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,” says Wilson Compton, M.D., M.P.E., deputy director for the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse told the journal. Risking-taking, again a badge of honor in the sixties, is being blamed for these overdoses.

But that is probably not the whole story. As we age, we have more aches and pains. And pain-relieving medication—often doctor-prescribed—becomes more necessary. Sometimes people are taking these medications to get “high,” but often they are also taking them after surgery or for other kinds of intense pain. According to the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, pain pills follow marijuana as the most popular ways for aging boomers to get high, Opioid painkillers also are the drug most often involved in overdoses, followed by antianxiety drugs, cocaine and heroin. Often the heroin comes into play when people can no longer get their prescriptions for pain medications filled.

And the problem is growing in larger numbers for boomer women, according to another study from the CDC. The study, from 2013, indicates that death rates related to prescription drug overdose have skyrocketed 400 percent among women (compared to 250 percent among men). “Although more men die from drug overdoses than women,” says the report, “the percentage increase in deaths since 1999 is greater among women. More women have died each year from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle–related injuries since 2007.”

How does it happen?

As a member of this generation, looking around at the landscape of my friends and family—and even myself—I can see how ODs can happen. Several years ago I got hit by a car and ended up with a broken leg and ankle. I had surgery and while I was recovering was on pain medication. I didn’t particularly like it, but the doctor told me to make sure not to miss a dose—to “stay ahead of the pain.” So I did. After a few weeks, when I started weaning off the medication, I realized that I was mildly addicted. I went through a small case of withdrawal. The only reason I knew this is because my husband is a doctor and he recognized it.

Most people, though, when they have gone through a physical trauma such as this, don’t have a doctor looking over their shoulder. They get addicted to the pain medication, and then it is hard to get off of it. Once you develop a tolerance, it’s easy to slip into a scenario in which you take your medication, and go along with your life. Have a drink or two…maybe mix it with other drugs, and then you get into trouble.

Ralph Ortiz, MD, a director of the New York State Pain Society, says: “With more people in general aging and seeking pain treatment for arthritis, injury etc. more overdoses are going to follow statistically. It is an unfortunate occurrence of treating more people with these medications in general. The physician’s “quiver” is short on “arrows” when it comes to treating pain and pills are usually first. Since they only mask pain and don’t actually treat, patients often require greater amounts to achieve relief. I encourage looking into newer therapies available, showing real patient improvement—such as platelet-rich plasma injections or wearable pain devices like sam® (sustained acoustic medicine).”

And he also notes that this generation, with its long history of drug-taking, might take matters into their own hands: “This generation is probably inherently more experienced and has a greater comfort level handling medications, which is a double-edged sword. I recommend that anyone dealing with the need for pain meds engage a very experienced pain medication specialist to avoid incorrectly self-medicating.”

Intentional overdoses

And then there are the people who OD on purpose. Earlier in life the boomer generation had higher rates of suicide and numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, that is still the case. The data indicates a dramatic spike in suicides among middle-aged people, with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 per 100,000; and women in their early 60s, whose rate rose by nearly 60 percent (though it is still relatively low compared with men, at 7 in 100,000). The highest rates were among white and Native American and Alaskan men. In recent years, deaths by suicide has surpassed deaths by motor vehicle crashes.

There are no large-scale studies that detail the why of this phenomenon, but we can all conjecture. First of all, there was the economic downturn in which many lost a great deal of their wealth and didn’t get it back. Life circumstances happen and many people just end up in a place they never thought they would be, alone and isolated. Barry Jacobs, director of Behavioral Sciences at Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania, says this about the suicide increases in The Washington Post: “There was an illusion of choice—where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again. These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition. And the Post goes on to say, “Instead, compared with their parents’ generation, boomers have higher rates of obesity, prescription and illicit drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, depression and mental disorders. As they age, many add to that list chronic illness, disabilities and the strains of caring for their parents and for adult children who still depend on them financially.”

So what does all this mean for us Boomers? Life is precious. And, while we may have been crazy in our youths—and even if a spark of that is still in us—we should be careful with ourselves and our drug and alcohol use and hold on to our lives and our health as long as we can.


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