Evidence-Based Reviews

Substance abuse among older adults: A growing problem

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Maintaining vigilance is the key to effective recognition and treatment.



Baby Boomers—a term used to refer to individuals born in the United States between 1946 and 1964—are now approaching old age. Surprisingly, these older adults are using illicit substances in a pattern not seen in prior generations of older adults, including developing substance use disorders (SUDs) at increasingly higher rates; in previous generations, the prevalence of such disorders typically lowered with advancing age.

This article discusses how to recognize and treat SUDs in older adults. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among older adults,1 and there is a largebody of literature describing the identification and treatment of alcohol-related disorders in these patients. Therefore, this article will instead focus on older adults’ use of illicit substances, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.


Prior clinical data regarding substance abuse in older adults focused on alcohol, prescription drugs, nicotine, and caffeine.2 Inthe past, compared with younger adults, older adults had lower rates of alcohol and other illicit drug use.3,4 Baby Boomers appear to be defying this trend.

A 2013 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found that the percentage of adults ages 50 to 64 who used illicit substances increased from 2.7% in 2002 to 6.0% in 2013.5 Specifically, during that time, past-month illicit substance use increased from 3.4% to 7.9% among those ages 50 to 54, from 1.9% to 5.7% among those ages 55 to 59, and from 2.5% to 3.9% among those ages 60 to 64.5

More recently, a 2014 study of geriatric patients found that of the 1,302 patients age ≥65 admitted to a Level 1 trauma center, 48.3% had a positive urine drug screen.6 Someresearchers have estimated that 5.7 million older adults will require treatment for a substance use disorder in 2020, which is roughly double the 2.8 million who had an SUD in 2002 to 2006.7

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