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Hidden Epidemic: Drug Abuse in Baby Boomers

Hidden Epidemic: Drug Abuse in Baby Boomers
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We should have seen it coming. We Baby Boomers were the ones who, in our youth, threw pills down our throat asking only later, “What were those?” We passed around the giant joint rolled from Cheech and Chong’s Big Bambu album cover at rock concerts and ate ‘shrooms to watch the harvest moon rise over meadows and mountains

We turned on, tripped out and (mostly) made it out alive (still miss you, Janis) but now, in our “golden years” we are discovering our long history with pharmaceuticals is not standing us in good stead. We are a generation of seniors with a drug problem. Substance abuse among us is one of the fastest growing health problems we as a society face, but, like many of us who find that our silver hair makes us suddenly invisible to younger people, our drug problems also go largely unnoticed.

Partly to blame is that doctors group symptoms which may be caused by drug addiction into other health problems usually associated with aging. Onset dementia can account for forgetfulness, high or low blood pressure or diabetes for any unsteadiness, loneliness for a lack of self-care. Hey even “I-never-inhaled” Bill Clinton’s hands shake now and his doctor told him that is a sign of normal aging.

We are not horrified by drug use as generations were before us. We may see drugs as a way to fight the depression of our older years and if we have been toking all along, we might be facing increasing physiological problems from it now. With time on our hands in retirement and with the kids out of the house, we might even find ourselves caught up in drug use we never suspected would hurt us.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of current illicit drug users aged 50-59 more than tripled between 2002 and 2012, from 900,000 to more than 3.0 million. We are seeking treatment for substance abuse and visits to emergency rooms are up more than 130 percent in 55-64 year-olds from 2004 to 2009 related to illicit drug use.

People in the generation above ours have rarely tried any illicit drug, but our lifetime exposure makes use more likely to use marijuana, illegal opioids (like heroin), illegal stimulants (like cocaine) and even hallucinogens (like LSD).

While it may be argued that pot won’t hurt us (and may even help some medical conditions), we should be aware that drugs stay in our systems much longer and our aging bodies won’t synthesize drugs the same way they did in our Grateful Dead days. Cocaine can elevate our heart rate and spike our blood pressure (tough on hearts that have been pumping for more than half a century), hallucinogens can trigger insomnia, wreck havoc with our body temperature and blood pressure, further suppress our already diminished appetites and trigger mental and mood disturbances that may mimic dementia. All drugs can up our risk of fall, injury and accidents.

Opioids—like Percocet, Fentanyl and Oxycodone– prescription drugs that are dangerous and extremely addictive, are often prescribed thoughtlessly to people our age. They kill more of us than is first apparent. (The most recent example being Prince, who was 57 years old when he died, after being prescribed opioids for hip pain.)

There are 2.1 million people suffering substance use disorders related to opioid pain relievers, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, director the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who was quoted at saying women are the ones who are most likely to suffer chronic pain and be given opioids to combat it. There has been a 450% increase in the number of deaths among women our age since 1999–a statistic attributed to opioid use. Women also have higher percentages of body fat and a lower percent of water in our bodies then man, which means opioids reside longer in our fatty tissues and can build up to a toxic level before we know it.

With pain being a part of life as we get older, doctors (who now spend only a few minutes on average meeting with their patients) over-prescribe such opioids and/or pass us off to pain specialists who also reach first for the prescription pad. It must be up to us to monitor our own usage.

So what to do if you find yourself in trouble with drugs, prescription or otherwise?

  • First, admit if you have a problem. If you are taking more and more meds to manage pain, anxiety, sleeplessness or depression, consider you might be addicted. If you have been on such drugs for more than 8 weeks, experts say it is time to speak to an addiction expert (and not the doctor who has been prescribing the drugs). Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( or 800-622-HELP to find some resources.
  • Don’t be afraid you will have to go through this “cold turkey”. Drugs like Naltrexone and Buprenorphine can help you wean off opioid drugs.
  • Yoga, massage, mediation, biofeedback and 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous have all proven helpful to other people who have faced addiction (and meetings particularly for people our age, held during the day, with accessibility features, are springing up all over the place).
  • If you still work, check with your workplace for any employee assistance program and be sure to check with your insurance to see what type of inpatient or outpatient recovery is covered.
  • Don’t be ashamed. No one expects to become an addict. Addiction is rightfully described as “cunning, baffling and powerful”. You will need to commit to a lifetime of sobriety, but you needn’t do so alone. Though it is humbling to admit to your family, especially your grown kids, that you might have a problem, you may find it comes as no surprise to them. They no doubt have seen the symptoms long before you did and may offer more support than you ever expected. Ask for help.

We may have fewer years ahead of us than we do behind us, but facing those years clean and sober will ensure those will be better years.

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