Drug Use in the Over-50 Crowd Doubles

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Photo by Sian Kennedy

Getting old and getting wasted didn’t used to have a lot to do with each other. But oldsters love a buzz just like anyone else, and increasingly, they’re indulging. As I reported in 2006, there’s always been a cohort of tie-dyed Boomers who never climbed off the pharmaceutical carousel of the 1960s. Then, two weeks ago, I reported on how the explosion in new opiate medications coupled with liberalized pain-treatment policies have resulted in a sharp spike in both accidental overdoses and pain-pill addiction in the over-50 crowd.

Now, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has released some new and scary numbers. According to the agency, between 1992 and 2008, the number of people over 50 being treated for addiction doubled, from 102,700 to 231,170 — and things are actually worse than those findings suggest. The lack of a national electronic system for tracking prescriptions means that figures like this are always at least a couple of years behind — and the past couple of years in particular have been the kind that traditionally drive addiction rates higher, with hard economic times leading to despair and that, in turn, leading people to medicate their pain with pills. Other data buried in the SAMHSA  findings confirm that: The share of people in the addicted population who were unemployed rose from 19.4% in 1992 to 28.8% in 2008. With more people out of work as a result of the Great Recession, more should be seeking solace in the medicine chest. The solution: tighter control on prescriptions, better monitoring of patients and more aggressive crackdowns on the gray market that allows unscrupulous docs to open barely legal “pain clinics” and distribute the meds like Skittles.