FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — They came of age in the drug-fueled psychedelic ‘60s, and faced adulthood's pressures as medications became a common way to deal with anxiety, pain and stress.
Now baby boomers are in danger of becoming the Hooked Generation as they stumble into seniorhood.
State and federal statistics show the number of people in their 50s and early 60s reporting illicit drug use and seeking help with addictions skyrocketed in the past decade.
“We can't ignore that older adults are using harder substances, that we are seeing increases in emergency room visits where people present with drug abuse,” said Dr. Gayathri Dowling, acting chief of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “But when we think about these addictions, we tend to think about younger people.
”Nobody thinks to ask older people about substance abuse, and that includes their physicians.“
New statistics from Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla., show the number of Floridians ages 51-60 who entered public-funded primary treatment programs went up 37 percent between 2001 and 2011, with 4,818 admitted last year. The increases were especially dramatic in regards to sedatives, with boomers going from comprising 6 percent to almost 19 percent of all admissions involving drugs like Valium and Xanax.
Treatment for crack cocaine abuse also increased significantly for this age group in that time period, from 325 to 412 annual admissions.
National Institutes of Health surveys show that in 2010, the most current year available, 2.4 million people ages 50-59 said they had abused prescription or illegal drugs within the past month – almost three times as many people as reported that behavior in 2002.
The NIH has become so concerned about the rapid rise in boomer addicts that it released its first consumer alert in June on prescription and illicit drug abuse signs and dangers on its website, NIHSeniorHealth.gov. Previously, the agency's publications about drugs and seniors have focused on monitoring interactions between legally prescribed medications and how to properly take pills.
Common age-related chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes are worsened by substance abuse, especially for those who have been using for years, experts say. And addictions are far more likely to be fatal for seniors.
There were 681 Floridians ages 45-54, and 315 ages 55-64, who died from accidental poisonings due to drugs and biological substances, including overdoses, in 2010. That's almost double the fatalities for the younger boomer group in 2002, and four times the number for the older group.
That boomers would drive up numbers of those simultaneously dealing with aging and addiction has been predicted for some time. One obvious reason is that there are so many of them – 79 million – as compared with the generation before them.
But people born between 1946 and 1964 also faced a perfect storm of factors that primed them for prescription and illegal substance addiction, according to Jim Hall, director of Nova's Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse.
For one, they were teens or young adults during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when society embraced experimenting with illegal drugs like marijuana and LSD. The younger people are when they take their first drink or their first toke, the more likely they are to become addicted adults, Hall said, due to brain development not being complete until about age 25.
And by the time baby boomers reached adulthood, physicians were increasingly prescribing legal but addictive sedatives, tranquilizers and opioids to help their patients calm down, sleep or just get through the day.
Beginning in the 1990s, consumers were bombarded with ads for such medications, said Dr. Barbara Krantz, medical director at the Hanley Center for substance abuse treatment in West Palm Beach. ”They became more comfortable with a quick fix,“ she said.
Statistics show people now in their 50s are far more likely than previous generations to be struggling with dual addictions to alcohol and prescription or illicit drugs. Floridians ages 51-60 comprised 14 percent of those entering treatment for dual addictions last year, compared with less than 4 percent seeking help 10 years earlier.
Hanley's residential treatment program for boomers is usually at or over capacity, and midlife and senior adults are the majority of the center's clients. Krantz said Hanley started separating the boomers from the 65-and-older seniors about three years ago, after noticing the two groups had very different needs and backgrounds.
One boomer who sought help at the Hanley Center was Ron Dash. His journey to the edge follows the shifts in cultural perceptions about drug use. He starting dabbling in social drugs at 13, and by the time he graduated was the coolest kid in his Long Island high school because he always could score weed.
He opened a business at 23, married and had a son – and turned to Valium when he was anxious or oxycodone when his hangovers gave him severe headaches. But it wasn't until he was 53, and unexpectedly found himself facing a family intervention, that he realized something was terribly wrong. The clincher: His then-8-year-old son, Sam, held up a family picture and ripped it in half.
”Drugs had become my solution to anything that I didn't like the way it felt. And I functioned that way for a very long time,“ said Dash, of Palm Beach Gardens. He has been sober since going through treatment in 2006, and regularly returns to the Hanley Center to speak to others in his age group.
”I can tell you when I go back to Hanley, I see less and less young people and more older ones,“ he said.