Although use of illicit (illegal) drugs is relatively uncommon among adults over age 65, there has recently been an increase in the percentage of people 50 and older abusing illicit drugs. In fact, the number of current illicit drug users aged 50-59 nearly tripled between 2002 and 2009, from 900,000 to more than 2.5 million. More older adults are also seeking treatment for substance abuse and having increased hospitalizations and visits to emergency rooms (up 60 percent in 55-64 year-olds from 2004 to 2009) because of illicit drug use.
These patterns and trends partially reflect the aging of the baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964). This could be for two reasons: (1) there were more people born in that generation and therefore there are now more people in that age group than before; and (2) baby boomers were more likely than previous generations to use illicit drugs in their youth, which is a risk factor for later use.
While it is relatively rare for adults over 65 to have ever used illicit drugs, baby boomers (adults in their 50s and early 60s) are more likely to have tried them. Greater lifetime exposure could lead to higher rates of abuse as baby boomers age. The most common drugs of abuse include the following
- illegal opioids, such as heroin
- illegal stimulants, such as cocaine
- hallucinogens, such as LSD
Although under federal law, marijuana is illegal to use under any circumstance, in some states doctors are allowed to prescribe it for medical use. However, most health experts do not recommend smoking marijuana to treat disease, particularly given potential negative effects on the lungs and respiratory system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two medications chemically similar to marijuana to treat wasting disease (extreme weight loss) in people with AIDS and to lessen symptoms associated with cancer treatment, such as nausea and vomiting.
Opioids are powerful drugs that at first cause feelings of euphoria, then periods of drowsiness. They can also slow breathing. Some opioids are legal and prescribed by a doctor. Others, like heroin, are illegal. All types of opioids can be addictive and can lead to death if too much is taken (overdose).
Stimulants like cocaine make people feel more alert and energetic. But they can also cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure, paranoia, panic attacks, aggression, and other problems. They are very addictive and can lead to death if too much is taken (overdose). Some stimulants are legally prescribed by a doctor to treat health conditions. Other kinds -- including cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), and methamphetamines -- are illegal.
Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs can greatly distort perceptions of reality, including making a person see, hear, and feel things that are not really there. Physical effects may include increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, sleeplessness, sweating, dizziness, and loss of appetite. Flashbacks and mood disturbances can also occur. This group of drugs includes LSD, peyote, psilocybin ("magic mushrooms"), and phencyclidine (PCP).
Age-related changes to our brains and bodies as well as typical diseases of aging could result in greater health consequences for older adults, even with lower levels of drug use. Illicit drugs affect older people differently than younger people because aging changes how the body and brain handle these substances. As people get older, the body goes through a number of changes and cannot break down and eliminate a drug as easily as it once did. As a result, the drug may remain in the body longer than it would in a younger person. Even a small amount can have a strong effect.
Abuse of illicit drugs can make an older person’s overall health worse. For example, cocaine can cause heart problems even in young abusers. The effects on older people, who may already have heart disease, could be even more severe. In addition, people who abuse illicit drugs may be exposed to diseases they otherwise wouldn’t risk (such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, a liver disease). This is because drugs compromise judgment and can lead to harmful behaviors. Older adults who take illicit drugs also have a higher risk of accidents, falls, and injuries.
Director, Ulster Prevention Council