Report: Many Baby Boomers Addicted To Drugs

The 'Baby Boomer' generation came of age in the 1960's, an era defined by 'sex, drugs and rock and roll'. Those days have long past, but new research suggests the boomers are still facing higher than normal rates of drug use. Peter Delany, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, discusses the new data and what it tells us about boomers. And offering a personal perspective, Juan Harris, Program Director for the Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery, and Rod Dash, a graduate of the program.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a tribute to one of NASCAR's forgotten heroes. But first, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll define the baby-boomer generation. Now, recent studies suggest that for many baby boomers, the drugs, at least, are still a lifestyle.

Two studies released this month find cause for concern. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that drug use between ages 50 and 59 is nearly double that of previous generations. Another study released by Duke University medical center last week found that a significant percentage of middle-aged adults are binge drinking.

Joining us now to discuss this are Peter Delany, he's the director with the Office of Applied Studies at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They released the study on drug addiction among baby boomers. Also with us, Juan Harris, he's program director for the Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery. And Rod Dash is a graduate of that program. Welcome to you all.

Mr. PETER DELANY (Director, Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration): Thank you.

Mr. JUAN HARRIS (Program Director, Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery): Thank you.

Mr. ROD DASH (Graduate, Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery): Thank you.

LUDDEN: Peter Delany, let me start with you. Do the results of either of these studies surprise you?

Mr. DELANY: No, they aren't. We've been kind of tracking this age range for a number of years, and there's been concern about growing substance abuse among older adults for a number of years.

This is the first time where we've tracked this, what we call the cohort, the 50 to 59 group, where all of them are baby boomers in the generation. So, this is the first time where we had all baby boomers in the 50s.

LUDDEN: So this is why the numbers are going up, because this generation is moving into this age bracket.

Mr. DELANY: Right. They're moving into this age bracket. That's correct.

LUDDEN: And it's mostly males, you found.

Mr. DELANY: What we found is that when you look at a typical person who is using drugs, they tend to be more male. They tend to be unemployed. They tend to be on the West Coast, oddly enough. They tend to be unmarried. Those are just demographic characteristics that characterize them.

LUDDEN: And I gather that having an addiction problem in your 50s is altogether different and worse than having it in your 20s in some ways, health-wise. Is that right?

Mr. DELANY: It's more complicated when you're in your 50s or your 60s because your metabolism isn't as fast, not like when you were 20. At the same time, people who are in their 50s and 60s tend to have other things going on with their bodies, hypertension, they may have another chronic illness. And with the drug use happening at the same time, the drug use can exacerbate any other conditions. If that condition comes on, it tends to sometimes mask it. So it goes back and forth.

LUDDEN: So you're thinking, oh, I'm just getting old, I have whatever. But in fact, people can't detect your addiction?

Mr. DELANY: Well, no, I think people can detect the addiction. The issue is, are people asking about it. People don't tend to think of people in the 50-to60-year-old range as being addicts or having a problem. And I want to kind of be clear. We weren't talking about just people with an addiction, we were talking people who were using, people who have an abuse problem and people who meet the criteria for addiction. So…

LUDDEN: And when you talk about metabolism changing at this age, what effect does that have if you use drugs or binge drink?

Mr. DELANY: Well, any drug may take a little bit longer to metabolize out of your system. So if there's significant cognitive impairment, it may take longer for that to improve. So you're at higher risk for other complications. You might fall. You might have bad judgment. A number of things happen. So it's a risk factor for other things happening to you.

LUDDEN: Juan, you deal with older adults who come in to your recovery center. I'm curious. Have they been perhaps abusing drugs, you know, for decades now, since Woodstock, or are these people who may have developed some additions along the way? Maybe they're heavier users now than they were?

Mr. HARRIS: What I've seen at Hanley Center in our older adult program definitely supports the results of the studies in that this is a group, as the mantra when we came on, sex, drugs and rock and roll, this is a group that began using at an early age, and used illicit drugs. And when we add to that what we call the early onset dynamic of addiction, this group really has not discontinued using for all of these years.

I'd also like to add to what Peter was talking about in terms of age-related changes in the body. As a person ages - we know that the muscle has more water content than fat, and as a person ages, the body has more fat, so it's less water content to dilute say, alcohol. Wherein a person could really be honest and says they were taking like one drink a night now they - that one drink is really sort of knocking them on their butt.

LUDDEN: So, I think they can't hold their liquor like they could before.

Mr. HARRIS: A dynamic, one of the diagnostic criteria that we look for is tolerance. Interestingly enough, as patients age we look for a dynamic that's known as reverse tolerance. And a little goes a lot further as they age, which kind of increases the potentiality of the addiction.

LUDDEN: Ron, you were a patient there at Juan's center, is that right?

Mr. RON DASH: Yes, that's correct.

LUDDEN: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and when your substance abuse began?

Mr. DASH: My substance abuse began with my introduction to alcohol at the age of nine, where I was given a beer at a New Year's Eve celebration at home and was told to sip it. And I chugged it, got drunk and passed out. From there it was, you know, wherever I could get a hold of a drink as a child, which was at family celebrations. I came from a liberal background and my parents were permissive, you know, so you know, it was okay for me. Everybody in my family drank.

LUDDEN: And do you think the adults around you just didn't know alcoholism could be a problem? It just wasn't really a concern?

Mr. DASH: I think a little bit of both, Jennifer. In my family we had, one of my uncles was a problem drinker alcoholic. He fell down the stairs and killed himself. He died, he broke his neck. So we understood that alcohol could be dangerous. But it was also something that we used in social occasions. I can remember Sunday afternoons at my house, all my family being there, everybody drinking, laughing, having a good time. That's my initial association to it.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Two separate studies find that drug addiction and binge drinking are on the rise among the Baby Boomer generation. To find out more, we're speaking with Peter Delany, from the Mental Health Services Administration, Juan Harris from the Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery, and Ron Dash, who's an alumni of that center. Juan, I'm curious…

Mr. HARRIS: Yes.

LUDDEN: Is the recovery process for someone in this generation, in their 50s say, is it the same as for younger Americans? Or is there, is it different or more difficult for someone to then recover after such long use?

Mr. HARRIS: Overall, older adults have the best recovery rates. Now within that group you have early onset and late onset. The early onsets are the ones where we're having this discussion about. They are the Boomers. They are the ones that started using right after high school, got a little more regular in college, and kind of - you look over their lifetimes and take histories, you can see multiple detoxes, probably multiple problems, divorces or DUIs and treatments, you know, over their lifetime. They're early onset. That's a very, very hard treat and they need long-term treatment.

LUDDEN: Ron, this is really describing you.

Mr. DASH: Yes.

LUDDEN: You, early onset use and it's been many decades now that you had a problem. What made you realize, first of all, that you did have a problem?

Mr. DASH: In one word, my wife. My wife held an intervention and brought in a specialist to come and talk to me, because she could not reach me. She, we had two homes at the time. She left me with our child and I was so far gone at the point. I was functioning. I went to work. I had a business I was running, but I couldn't run my life and she just couldn't get through to me.

She left. My attitude was, okay, I'm going to continue to drink. And she brought in an interventionist and that's, you know, having my family there, everybody reading letters, having my then eight-year-old son reading me a heartbreaking letter, it put a chink in the armor of my denial is the best way I could put it.

LUDDEN: And did you realize as you were aging, the toll that this use was taking?

Mr. DASH: Oh yeah. I, you know, I was a soldier, I was a rock 'n' roller. I mean, that was my generation, party, party, party. And, you know, I didn't suffer too many physical consequences up until when I turned 50. You know, I started to first experience severe hangovers at the age of 50. I'd never had hangovers before. I could drink as much as I want, stay up all night, use whatever I wanted and not feel, you know, a little fuzzy the next day. But after 50 I had to go on blood pressure medication and started to just feel the affects really bad.

LUDDEN: Peter Delany, we're in the midst of a very intense debate on health care now. I'm curious what this increased addiction now among older Americans means for the health care system?

Mr. PETER DELANY (Director of the Office of Applied Studies at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration): Well, to us at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, this study is a signal that we need to start paying attention to this population in a couple of ways we think about this. First, we need to be thinking about ways to reach people who tend not to show up in specialty clinics, as well. A lot of us think about just the addiction and the person who has gotten to the point where they really need a specialty care program like the one that Juan runs.

We also need to think about how do we help primary care physicians, nurses, social workers, people in the mental health field. They tend to see a lot of these individuals before they get into specialty treatment. So we need to find ways like the screening and brief intervention models that SAMHSA and NIDA have been supporting, as well as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to help people become more effective and more confident in asking questions like drug use and alcohol use.

LUDDEN: In other words, to alert like primary care physicians who may not know to really kind of look for this in this age group?

Mr. DELANY: Right, to just ask the question.

Mr. HARRIS: This is Juan. May I add something to what Peter was saying?

LUDDEN: Please.

Mr. HARRIS: I totally agree with Peter, and some of the major barriers to detection is awareness. There's a dynamic out there that's called ageism and what ageism is, it's a stereotypical view of older adults and it contributes most things that are happening with older adult to the aging process. And what that does is that limits the research or limits the person from looking for other ideologies of what may be ailing the older adults. And our medical director is an addictionologist, but most doctors, the training that they've had in addiction only amounts to a three credit course.

LUDDEN: It also seems like, you know every family has the old doddering uncle who sits in the chair and just kind of pounds them back, right? And you kind of think well, you know, the person's made it this far in life, he must be fine. Or you know, you kind of give him a pass. I think there's this attitude, you know, you're older...

Mr. DELANY: Well, from a health perspective, I'm sorry this is Peter - from a health perspective, that's just not a good way to go. Even, first of all, their quality of life isn't that great. But also, let's say they do fall down the stairs and they don't break their neck but they break their arm, they break their hip, it costs a lot of money. And their quality of life, as well as the family's quality of life can be significantly affected.

And it could be that not only are they drinking a lot, but they're also diabetic. All of these kind of interact, so I mean, and that's one of the reasons we say we have to be more successful as a society raising this.

LUDDEN: Let me ask you Peter, how are resources for treating this age group?

Mr. DELANY: Well we tend to track public funded treatment but I think it's probably consistent with the rest of the country. One of the things I was looking at before I came down here is that since 2002 the number of publically funded treatment facilities that provide services, special services for older adults has gone from like 14 percent to seven percent. So in the same time frame as the study, we've seen a decrease in the number of specialty services for this age group.

At the same time, we've also seen - we're seeing that this is a larger proportion of individuals in publically funded treatment. So it was seven percent of the population in 2002. It's now 10 percent of the population. So it's tracking very well. So as it's proportionately becoming larger, though it's still a small segment, it's only 10 percent, the number of places that have services that meet the developmental needs and probably the health needs, because they kind of goes hand in hand, is shrinking.

LUDDEN: Peter Delany is the director of the Office of Applied Studies at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They recently released a study on drug addiction among Baby Boomers. Mr. Delany joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Juan Harris is program director for the Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery. He joined us from Clear Channel Communications in West Palm Beach, Florida. And also joining us from there was Ron Dash, a graduate of the recovery program. Thank you all.

Mr. HARRIS: You're welcome.

Mr. DELANEY: Thank you.

Mr. DASH: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. And now we'd like to hear from you. Have you or someone close to you struggled with addiction in later life? And how did that addiction affect your family? How did you or your loved one find help?

To tell us more, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. The number again, 202-842-3522. Remember to tell us your name or you could share your story on our blog. Just go to the new NPR.org, click on TELL ME MORE under Programs, and blog it out.

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