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Rates of drug use, addiction soar for baby boomers

  • Palm Beach Post, Fla.
  • Published Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at 12 a.m.

— This month, and nearly every month for the past three years, the 20 beds set aside specifically for drug- and alcohol-addicted baby boomers at Hanley rehab center in West Palm Beach can’t meet the demand. Always more patients than beds.

The wave of 50- and 60-somethings isn’t unique to the rehab center.

Instead it is part of a national trend that sees the rates of drug use and addiction in baby boomers soaring over generations before.

Having come of age as drugs were a pillar of popular culture, and growing into a demographic broadly identified as overachieving, boomers appear to be overachieving in emergency room visits, and even deaths, by drugs.

The problem is becoming so prevalent that the National Institutes of Health recently posted a warning on its website to seniors:

“Data from national surveys reveal a disturbing trend for 50- to 59-year-olds: the number of those reporting past-month abuse of illicit drugs including the nonmedical use of prescription drugs” has more than doubled from 2002 (907,000) to 2010 (2.4 million).

The nation’s health authorities want to get the message out not only to boomers, but also to their friends, families and doctors, many of whom may be quick to misinterpret the effects of drug use as simply aging.

“People just haven’t paid attention to the drug use with this group,” said Gaya Dowling, acting chief for the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But they should.

When people round the corner at age 50, they are more apt to be on a variety of medications. Mixing those pills with drugs that doctors didn’t prescribe can make someone more ill or produce new “symptoms” that aren’t actually related to being sick, such as frequent falls, complaints about memory or headaches, said Barbara Krantz, Hanley’s medical director.

Also, their aging bodies don’t process those drugs the way they did when they were younger, leaving the drugs and their effects to linger.

Some 75 million people were born in the baby boom years between 1946 and 1964 — that means about 10,000 a day turn 50 years old.

But these surveys reflect more than a population bubble making its way through addiction clinics and hospitals, Krantz and others agree.

The rates of drug use and addiction in boomers are higher than generations before, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2010.

When baby boomers check into rehab, the leading “drug of choice” is alcohol, says Hanley’s Juan Harris, director of the center’s baby boomer program. The national poll indicates that when it comes to illegal substances, the leading drug used by the youngest of the boomers is marijuana, followed by cocaine and heroin. Boomers also have contributed to the skyrocketing abuse of prescription opiates such as Oxycontin.

“We’re already seeing increases in emergency room mentions,” Dowling said.

Scientists now know that people who try drugs early in life are predisposed to developing addictions later.

“When drugs are entered into the yet-not-fully developed brain, it actually changes the pattern of how the brain will react to substances even later in life,” said Jim Hall, the epidemiologist at Nova who crunched the Florida numbers.

The bulk of boomers came of age when drugs like marijuana and LSD were integral to the popular culture. According to polling giant Gallup, only 4 percent of those polled in 1969 had tried pot; by 1977 that had grown to 24 percent.

And when anxieties or aches and pains flared in young adulthood, the country was in the midst of a pharmaceutical bent that meant a doctor fixed those problems by writing a prescription, Krantz said.

“It is that quick-fix mind-set that’s fueled a lot of this shift,” Krantz said.

When boomers check in to rehab, Harris said, they don’t fit in with their older counterparts, some of whom use walkers and are more reminiscent of boomers’ parents.

But lumping the boomers in with the younger addicts didn’t work well either, Harris said.

“We’d have someone 57 in a unit with someone 18. Their maternal or paternal instincts would kick in.” The boomers would be so busy nurturing the youngsters that they couldn’t properly address their own addictions, he said.

Three years ago, Hanley tackled that by giving them their own program. Now the demand to duplicate the program is so great that in the past month Harris has traveled nonstop to talk about how best to treat addicted boomers.

He’s flown to New York, Massachusetts and the Carolinas and is calling Idaho, Mississippi and Oregon.

Harris said the polling at Hanley and his experience with boomers points to a number of reasons that make boomers depressed and turn to drugs: when the last child has flown the coop, when the marriage ends in divorce and when retirement leaves them with no built-in social network.

“In recovery, they really do well in an environment of peers,” Harris said.

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