More Senior Citizens Seeking Treatment for Addiction
> 3/6/2008 1:39:06 PM

Drug and alcohol addiction is often thought of as a disease limited to the young and, in rare cases, the middle-aged. But, as the New York Times reported today, an increasing number of senior citizens now seek treatment for substance abuse problems, and many special programs have sprung up in response to the trend. This oft-neglected constituency and their "invisible epidemic" have begun to receive new scrutiny as a significant recovery industry consumer bloc.

A new study from Brandeis University hints at alcohol abuse rates that are far higher among elderly Medicare patients than previously thought. 1 in 10 of the study's 65-and-over participants reported drinking more than the recommended allowance of 30 drinks each month, and more liberal estimates and studies of alcohol dependence among seniors run as high as 1 in 6. This trend may reflect more directly upon the size of said allowance, which amounts to 1 drink per day. But the numbers are worth considering. Among a population who drink at far lower levels than younger generations and whose bodies are more dramatically affected by alcohol, a 10% rate of abuse is significant even if the "abuse" defined here may amount to little beyond having three or four drinks over one 24-hour period in a given month. In addition to the usual dangers of excessive drinking, regular alcohol abuse holds certain heightened threats for the more fragile bodies of seniors.

As the famously drug-friendly baby boomer generation ages and the population on the whole grows older, more over-50 adults are also reporting for treatment of substance abuse problems related to illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Some estimate that the pool of aging patients who need recovery treatment will triple in the next 15 years, and the total number of seniors treated for cocaine problems rose from 3,000 in 1992 to 13,000 in 2002. Still, elderly citizens with illicit drug problems are the exception to the rule. Alcohol remains, by a sizable majority, the most common reason for a trip to rehab.

Seniors also represent the largest consumers of prescription meds, which constitute the second largest problem area among seniors. The synthetic opiates making news as designer drugs for the younger crowd are also prescribed in considerable number to elderly patients suffering from the pains of surgery and various physical infirmities. This issue also complicates drinking trends as alcohol interacts with various pharmaceuticals in very negative ways and most chronic alcoholics, while aware of this risk, will not see it as sufficient grounds to go without their drug of choice. While approximately 25% of the seniors counted in the study keep their drinking under the FDA limit and a considerable majority don't drink at all, the fact that nearly a third of those who do drink do it to excess is grounds for concern.

Late-onset alcoholism (beginning after the age of 45) dominates this equation. A large majority of seniors who need treatment for alcohol dependence did not begin drinking to excess until later in their lives due to any number of factors: retirement, boredom, depression, isolation, the death of a spouse or loved one. Problems very often go unnoticed among this population due to simple inattention or a perception that the issue is not particularly noteworthy. But the larger trend will only receive more attention in the coming months and years because many of the treatments these seniors receive will be covered by Medicare, and they could prove extremely costly to the already troubled program. This is not to say that they should be discouraged from seeking treatment or that these plans should not be covered. If anything, seniors should be reminded of the threat posed by alcohol and pharmaceutical abuse and spurred to schedule a professional appointment before the problem grows out of control. And programs specifically tailored to seniors may ultimately save money, and land more affected individuals in treatment where they belong.

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