• Substance Abuse Trends: A New Demographic Takes Over
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    Substance Abuse Trends: A New Demographic Takes Over

    Many people believe they know exactly how an addict looks based on stereotypes often perpetuated by the media. The typical profile involves a young, uneducated, jobless person, living on the street or in less than ideal conditions and in poor physical health.

    New research reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. Adults aged 50-59 now largest age group in opioid treatment programs. Even more disturbing is the fact that researchers believe the “increase in older adults utilizing opioid treatment programs is likely to continue into the next decade.” According to a recent study from New York University, there had been significant changes in the demographics among older adults with substance abuse issues.

    Researchers cited three distinct trends in age for those utilizing opioids and stated there was:

    1. An increase in injection drug use among those over the age of 50.
    2. Adults aged 50 and older have become the majority in the opioid treatment population.
    3. The admissions into treatment programs have increased for people aged 50 and older.

    The study, published in the Journal of Substance Use & Misuse, was done in New York City, which hosts one of the largest methadone treatment systems in the United States. Specifically, the data of older adults addicted to opioids between 1996 and 2012 produced results that are almost impossible to comprehend:

    • Individuals aged 50-59 grew from 7.8% to 35.9% of patients in opioid treatment and rehabilitation during this time period.
    • Patients aged 60-69 grew from 1.5% of patients to 12.0% of patients.
    • Those 40 and younger accounted for 56.2% of patients in 1996, but were a only a minuscule fraction of that in 2012 at 20.5% of total patients.

    The experts reviewing the data were somewhat stunned by these numbers and stated, “These increases are especially striking, considering there was about a 7.6% decrease in the total patient population over that period of time, and suggests that we are facing a never before seen epidemic of older adults with substance use disorders and increasing numbers of older adults in substance abuse treatment.”

    Earlier this year, a study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology discovered one unique contributing factor for the increase in opioid use in older populations. Legal medications of opioids “might be prescribed more frequently among older adults with COPD to treat chronic muscle pain, breathlessness and insomnia.”

    This investigation raised safety concerns about the high rates of new opioid use among older adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the potential for addictive behavior and reliance on the drug. Clearly, these recently published papers destroy the typical stereotype of a drug addict.

    Reinventing Treatment Programs

    These and other studies point to the change in drug use patterns in recent years among the aging population of adults seeking and accessing opioid treatment. Specific rehabilitation options and revisions to traditional programs will become necessary to help the older drug addict. For now, recovery centers will be successful only if they adjust to the unique needs of an older generation. For example:

    • Mature adults frequently want a greater role in determining their own course of treatment than younger clients.
    • They have the desire to understand the addiction and search for education as part of their program.
    • Older adults naturally have aches and pains that have consistently been treated with prescription drugs, which may complicate their sobriety.
    • They resist the need to ask others for help and value their independence, complicating the situation for counselors and professionals

    The clear message from this gathering of research and fresh data indicates that the field of treatment and rehabilitation for substance abuse must be tailored and defined to better address the health needs of this increasing demographic.

    Audrey Beim holds two advanced degrees from major universities, including a Master’s Degree in Psychology. She has over 20 years of experience in the health, wellness, nutritional and fitness categories and has used her expertise to write articles for media outlets such as Linfield Media and Examiner.com.


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