America's elderly face growing drug addiction problem
By Toni Clarke
Wed May 17
BOSTON (Reuters) - When
Patrick Gallagher first began nodding off at dinner, his
family thought it was a symptom of old age. Their fears
grew as it worsened.
from the world at age 64, Gallagher was addicted to a
cocktail of alcohol and prescription painkillers.
"My whole life was
centered around making sure I had an adequate supply of
drugs and alcohol," said the former instructor at the
University of Miami.
Gallagher, of Jensen
Beach, Florida, is an elderly substance abuser, a
fast-growing group in the United States as baby boomers
A government survey
estimates that the number of adults aged 50 or older
with substance abuse problems will double to 5 million
in 2020 from 2.5 million in 1999, in large part due to
their comfort with prescription drugs.
"There is a huge concern
that what we're going to be seeing is a tidal wave of
seriously affected substance abusers in later life,"
said Frederic Blow, an associate professor at the
University of Michigan Medical School who specializes in
geriatric substance abuse.
predecessors, the Woodstock generation is comfortable
taking medications for a wide range of problems,
including pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety. As a
result, they are more vulnerable to substance abuse in
later life, experts say.
Rush Limbaugh, the
politically conservative, 55-year-old talk show host,
who was charged last month with prescription drug fraud
in connection with his addiction to painkillers, is
representative of the new kind of patient showing up in
treatment centers and emergency rooms, experts say.
So-called "late onset"
substance abuse is often linked to medical problems and
the emotional traumas that can accompany old age, from
isolation to the death of friends and family.
Alcohol remains the most
commonly abused substance in the elderly, followed by
prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, made by
Purdue Pharama, and Vicodin, by Abbott Laboratories Inc
, and anti-anxiety pills such as Valium, by Roche, and
Xanax, by Pfizer .
Of 495,859 emergency-room
hospital visits in the United States in 2004 for the
non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, 32,556 were by
people aged 55 to 64 years old and 31,203 were by people
older than 65, according to the first national
government survey of its kind.
began when he began taking OxyContin and oxycodone to
treat serious back pain.
OxyContin is a
sustained-release version of oxycodone, whose brand
names include Percocet and Percodan, both made by Endo
Pharmaceuticals and whose abuse potential is similar to
that of morphine.
"I felt tremendous," he
said. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven because I
Gradually, however, those
positive feelings gave way to lethargy and crippling
depression. He needed more and more pills to gain the
same effect and he increased his alcohol intake
dramatically to help.
"My life became
unmanageable," said Gallagher, who entered treatment
about a year ago after his family intervened to help
him. Now aged 65, he manages his pain through
alternative, holistic methods such as acquatherapy and
ELDERLY ILLICIT DRUG USE
It's not just
prescription drug abuse that is on the rise. Illicit
drug use is also increasing, though the absolute numbers
are still relatively small.
Of 383,350 emergency
admissions nationwide for cocaine abuse in 2004, 10,790
were patients between the ages of 55 and 64, while 1,503
were aged 65 and older.
"We are beginning to see
an increase in heroin and cocaine addiction at the
front-end of the baby boom wave," said Carol Colleran,
executive vice president of public policy and national
affairs at Hanley Center, a treatment program in West
Palm Beach and the author of "Aging and Addiction."
"The increase is slight
yet, but it begs the question as to whether that figure
is going to increase dramatically if the baby boomers
revert back in retirement to the drugs they tended to
use in their college years."
companies are introducing new medications to combat
pain, anxiety and sleeplessness, supposedly without the
potential for abuse, those drugs can carry their own
Ambien, the insomnia drug
made by Sanofi-Aventis cited by U.S. Rep. Patrick
voting record) as the cause of his recent car crash
near the U.S. capitol, has been blamed recently for
causing blackouts in patients that have led to car
crashes, sleepwalking and binge eating.
"The drug companies want
you to believe their drugs are safe," said Blow, "but I
think I think we are just going to see new problems in