Substance Abuse Among Baby Boomers On The Rise: What Can Be Done?

There’s no question that life these days seems a whole lot more difficult than it did just a few short years ago. No doubt the Baby Boomers among us, generally categorized as those born between 1946 and 1955, are perhaps feeling the sting of disappointment and financial strain a bit more than some of the younger generation. In fact, Baby Boomers have been resorting to using substances such as alcohol and drugs as a method of coping with some of life’s stressors.

Substance Abuse Grows Among Boomers

A recent study sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that the rate of illicit drug use among those adults aged 50 to 59 has increased 3.1 percent in the past eight years.

The NSDUH also found that an estimated 4.3 million American adults aged 50 and older (or 4.3 percent of this population) have abused an illicit substance in the past year. Of that, men over the age of 50 were more likely to use marijuana than prescription drugs, while individuals age 65 and older were more likely to use prescription medication. Women, as a group, had a higher rate of prescription drug abuse than men, although they did tend to use less illicit drugs.

According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), the two most commonly abused prescription drugs are opiates or painkillers, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone, and benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and lorazepam (Ativan).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that 48 million people in the United States have used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes. But, although the elderly comprise only 13 percent of the population, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, this group accounts for one-third of the prescriptions, raising the potential for abuse and addiction.

This poses a problem not only for the boomers themselves, but also for their families, both children and elderly parents.

What is causing this growing incidence of substance abuse among boomers? There are several possible explanations. We’ll begin with one that seems to be a common perception, which may or may not have a basis in reality, depending on which Baby Boomer is being considered. After all, each person is the product of unique life experiences, and not all boomers fall into the same category.

Population study experts who pore over data and characteristics of generations of adults in the United States point to the fact that Baby Boomers grew up during a time when the recreational use of drugs was not only common practice, but was accepted behavior in certain parts of society. Certainly it was among the boomer generation.

Now, as life stressors are mounting up, many of these boomers are once again reverting to substance abuse as a means of coping with daily stresses and unexpected and unpleasant changes.

Contributing Factors to Baby Boomers’ Substance Abuse

But just growing up in a time of common recreational use of drugs couldn’t be the only reason why Baby Boomers are now using drugs and alcohol, often to levels approaching dependency and addiction. There have to be other contributing factors to consider.

In fact, there are a number of them.

Financial insecurity and strain, the loss of a parent or loved one, age-related health issues and other stressors tend to increase during this transitional period in boomers’ lives.

  • Looking for a quick fix- With their tendency to be extremely goal-oriented or career-oriented, many boomers look for a quick fix to problems. Approaching tasks, they were used to figuring out a solution and going for it. When their current lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to immediate relief from stress, anxiety, depression, illness and other unpleasant changes, they may find that drowning their sorrows in alcohol or numbing their mind with drugs offers a way out of the pain, even it if is only a temporary solution.
  • Dealing with stage of life issues – Baby Boomers are now at that time in their lives when they have to sit down and deal with some pretty heavy issues, things they either didn’t think much about before or figured were a long ways off and therefore not demanding their attention. It could be adjusting to a life in retirement that adds stress to their lives. With no job or career to attend to on a daily basis, many boomers may feel lost, undervalued, unimportant, and mourn the feeling they had of being part of something, a sense of community. Other life issues that cause stress and unpleasant change include possibly having to support two other generations: their own children and their aging parents. How much easier it often seems to just take a drink or pop a pill of one kind or another in order to just have it all fade away for a while?
  • More medications prescribed as Boomers age – Then, there’s also the fact that as Baby Boomers get older, they’re subject to any number of age-related health conditions, any one of which may require that they are being prescribed various types of medication. Combine several different doctors and multiple conditions and the individual could be taking a pharmacopeia of pills – which could interact with each other and result in side-effects or complications. Factor in daily or frequent intake of alcohol, sometimes to excess, and the risks increase for dependency, addiction and overdose. Another fact to consider is that Baby Boomers are more accepting of medication, and often view prescription drug use as necessary. They may even boast how many pills they’re taking, listing them in a litany of drugs to other family members.
  • Combination of drugs and age-related complex disorders – As boomers age, they may experience a combination of different disorders that are related to aging. Health risks increase when boomers abuse substances and have existing or newly-developed complex disorders. While boomers may know something about their health conditions, they may not be aware of the health risks they are taking as a result of their substance abuse in conjunction with their age-related medical conditions. Older Americans also have more problems related to drinking due to both the effect of cumulative years of drinking and the fact that their bodies and brains are older and have less restorative abilities. The effects of drinking impact an older individual faster because the body and brain aren’t able to metabolize the alcohol consumed as well or to regenerate brain cells.
  • Resistant to getting treatment for addiction – Another common tendency is for Baby Boomers to feel that they can take care of the situation themselves, no matter what it is. This includes the belief that they don’t need treatment to overcome substance abuse. Not only will they deny that they have a problem with abuse of alcohol or drugs, if pressed and when faced with the facts, they often vehemently insist that they can get a handle on it without outside help. The problem with this resistance is that boomers will likely just continue abusing substances. Once dependent, it’s an almost inevitable slide into addiction. Without treatment, the cycle will just continue.

Learn about treatment options for Baby Boomers.