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Shocker: Retired and Hooked on Pain Pills

When you close your eyes and picture an opioid addict, what image comes to mind? How old is the person in your mental picture?

Truth be told, that image is probably of a person who’s a lot younger than they should be…

The Changing Profile of Addiction

According to a recent study in the Journal of Substance Use & Misuse, adults aged 50 and up are the new “majority population” patients admitted to opioid treatment programs. These middle-agers now account for over one-third of the people hooked on opiates, while adults between the ages of 60 and 69 make up another 12 percent.

Majority of middle aged patients admitted to opioid treatment programsIf the opiate addict you conjured up in your mind was both wrinkle- and glasses-free, your picture was clearly off the mark.

These study results are based on trends in New York City, home to one of the largest methadone treatment systems in the country. With these current statistics, researchers predict the boom in older opiate addicts is one that’s here to stay. Over the next decade, they expect the number of older adults entering opioid treatment to explode.

Meanwhile, the population of younger patients seeking treatment is shrinking to a mere fraction of its previous size. Patients age 40 and below used to make up over half of those in treatment. Now, they only make up about a fifth of the population.

What Does This Mean for Treatment Programs?

Based on these new numbers, researchers suggest we are looking at a geriatric addiction treatment epidemic. That’s a fancy way of saying we are on the verge of having more older patients in treatment than we’ve ever seen before – in a system that is already bursting at the seams.

The creators and facilitators of modern opioid treatment programs will ultimately be forced to respond to the age increase of their patients. Services provided to a 59-year-old opiate addict will probably need to look a lot different than those provided to a 19-year-old. And the chronic diseases and geriatric conditions that eventually ail all of us as we’re pushing 60? Well, those will also have a major effect on addiction treatment.

Age-specific issues can include:

  • Other medications for age-related conditions may interact with treatment
  • Age-related diseases may make treatment even more difficult, both physically and emotionally
  • Decreased mental functions of older adults can add further complications to treatment
  • Support systems for adults in this age bracket are typically different than those of younger patients

No Time to Waste

In a statement that should shock no one, researchers admit that our current knowledge about the interaction of geriatric conditions and substance abuse is lacking. We simply don’t have a good grasp of the unique needs of this population. That’s because we’ve been focused on the addiction of 20-somethings – older opiate addicts haven’t even breached the radar until recently.

Going forward, it’s obvious that researchers and treatment providers will need to keep this aging trend in mind and – what’s even more important – they’ll need to work to find the appropriate solutions to account for their needs. Thousands of lives depend on it.
Additional Reading:   Spotlight: Drug Abuse in the Over-60 Crowd

Image Source: iStock

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