Older adults are abusing drugs, getting arrested for drug offenses and dying from drug overdoses at increasingly higher rates
Baby Boomers like Mike Massey, who stopped using drugs in his 30s but started abusing them again when he was 50, are developing drug problems at increasingly higher rates. What is the profile of a Boomer at risk? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer. Photo: Stuart Palley for The Wall Street Journal
Updated March 16, 2015 12:41 p.m. ET
UPLAND, Calif.—From the time he was a young man coming of age in the 1970s, Mike Masseycould have served as a poster child for his generation, the baby boomers. He grew his hair long to the dismay of his father, surfed, played in rock bands and says he regularly got high on marijuana and cocaine.
The wild times receded as he grew older. In his 30s, he stopped using drugs altogether, rose into executive positions with the plumbers and pipe fitters union, bought a house in this Los Angeles suburb and started a family. But at age 50, Mr. Massey injured his knee running. He took Vicodin for the pain but soon started using pills heavily, mixing the opioids with alcohol, he said.
“It reminded me of getting high and getting loaded,” said Mr. Massey, now 58 years old, who went into recovery and stopped using drugs and alcohol in 2013. “Your mind never forgets that.”
Older adults are abusing drugs, getting arrested for drug offenses and dying from drug overdoses at increasingly higher rates. These surges have come as the 76 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reach late middle age. Facing the pains and losses connected to aging, boomers, who as youths used drugs at the highest rates of any generation, are once again—or still—turning to drugs.
The trend has U.S. health officials worried. The sharp increase in overdose deaths among older adults in particular is “very concerning,” said Wilson Compton, deputy director for the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The rate of death by accidental drug overdose for people aged 45 through 64 increased 11-fold between 1990, when no baby boomers were in the age group, and 2010, when the age group was filled with baby boomers, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality data. That multiple of increase was greater than for any other age group in that time span.
The surge has pushed the accidental overdose rate for these late middle age adults higher than that of 25- to 44-year-olds for the first time. More than 12,000 boomers died of accidental drug overdoses in 2013, the most recent data available. That is more than the number that died that year from either car accidents or influenza and pneumonia, according to the CDC.
“Generally, we thought of older individuals of not having a risk for drug abuse and drug addiction,” Dr. Compton said. “As the baby boomers have aged and brought their habits with them into middle age, and now into older adult groups, we are seeing marked increases in overdose deaths.”
Experts say the drug problem among the elderly has been caused by the confluence of two key factors: a generation with a predilection for mind-altering substances growing older in an era of widespread opioid painkiller abuse. Pain pills follow marijuana as the most popular ways for aging boomers to get high, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which conducts an annual national survey on drug use. Opioid painkillers also are the drug most often involved in overdoses, followed by antianxiety drugs, cocaine and heroin.