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a senior man dumps pills from a pill bottle into his hand

My youthful dalliance with various recreational drugs lasted rather longer than I care to admit. I first experimented with them in an Air Force barracks in 1970 and sampled just enough of the available intoxicants to feel at home in the prevailing culture without venturing beyond what we then considered socially acceptable.

All the usual suspects — marriage, children, career — eventually combined with a modicum of common sense to clear my head and end that particular infatuation. I last imbibed almost 35 years ago at a friend’s wedding, and I’ll just say the results of that momentary relapse are not suitable for discussion among polite company.

So, I’m a little vexed when I hear that some of my old ’70s crew are still occasionally chasing that high we so earnestly pursued in our youth. I’d like to think we’ve figured some stuff out after all these years, but to hear researchers from Northwestern University tell it, boomers are still going after it — and dying by overdose in droves.

Between 1999 and 2019, the number of Americans 55 and older who suffered fatal opioid overdoses each year exploded from 518 (0.9 per 100,000) to 10,292 (10.7 per 100,000), according to a study published last month in JAMA Network Open.

“Many are Baby Boomers who, in their youth, were using recreational drugs and, unlike in previous generations, they’ve continued using into their older age,” explains senior author Lori Post, PhD. “That sort of flies in the face of our stereotypes of the ‘older adult.’ We don’t think of them as recreational drug users, but it’s a growing problem.”

There’s plenty of evidence indicating that seniors have become one of the more enthusiastic consumers of legal marijuana, but it’s not the occasional joint that’s sending these folks to the ER. More likely, Post suggests, this particular trend is partly fueled by the emergence of fentanyl as the illicit drug of choice — especially in Black communities — and by chronically ill boomers struggling to remember (or happy to forget) which painkillers to take and how often to take them.

Nine out of 10 Americans over the age of 65 swallow at least one prescription drug daily, and more than half of the senior set gobble down four or more. Opioids fill the medicine cabinets of those suffering from the chronic pain of arthritis or cancer, and the various debilitating effects of advanced age can heighten their chances of an overdose. It’s not just that cognitively challenged older adults may forget dosage recommendations; even if they’re taking the right number of pills at the right time, their bodies may not be able to safely metabolize the drugs.

And the lack of social contact during the pandemic, Post adds, has probably exacerbated the typically fraught feelings of loneliness among seniors — which often results in substance abuse. “Social isolation and depression increase with age and are associated with substance [use] disorder, which may play a role in opioid overdose deaths among older adults,” she explains. “In addition, the present generation of older adults uses substances at higher rates than previous generations. The higher prevalence may contribute to opioid overdose deaths in older adults in combination with physical changes associated with aging.”

Long-held beliefs about seniors and drug use often obstruct any meaningful screening process at the clinic, but even if we weren’t “invisible,” as Post puts it, the effects of aging on our cognitive and physical capabilities can disguise any clues about substance abuse. Plus, it’s hard to imagine any of my old stoner pals admitting they have a problem.

To better address the issue, Post suggests spreading the surveillance well beyond the doctor’s office: “We need to inform the services that cater to older adults, such as meal-delivery or housekeeping services, about these potential issues and how to recognize the signs of drug misuse, like confusion, falls, and asking for medication too often or off cycle.”

We used to call snoopy people like that “narcs” back in the day, and they were viewed in our more charitable moments as existential threats to our liberty. Still, desperate times call for desperate measures. If such a strategy could save a few lives, I can’t really see why we shouldn’t give it a try. Of course, anybody poking around in my medicine cabinet looking for troublesome clues is likely to be disappointed. I can’t recall the last time I even swallowed an aspirin.

Craig
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. I am from Mendoza, Argentina.
    Very interesting article.
    It’s sad, very sad indeed to know how old and young people are dying from drug abuse and overdoses as if they were trapped in obvious and deep existential voids.
    In your article you talk about fentanyl. In vulnerable populations in my country there are young people dying like flies from using cocaine adulterated with carfentanil which is for veterinary use — it’s really criminal.

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