Aging With a Drug Habit

October 1, 2008

USA — It has been four decades since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but aging baby boomers haven’t stopped turning on.

The federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released earlier in September, finds that as boomers move into their 50s in large numbers, drug use among older adults in the United States has hit its highest point ever.

In the government’s latest report — reflecting drug use in 2007 — 1 in 20 Americans ages 50 to 59 told researchers they had used illicit drugs in the last month. More than one-half of these older users still like their street drugs, including marijuana and cocaine.

But as older users contend with the aches and pains of aging, they are adding prescription drugs to their mix, according to the report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

By contrast, the new, younger generation of drug users isn’t waiting to reach middle age to add prescription drugs to its portfolio of abuse, the report says.

Among teenagers and young adults ages 12 to 25, one-third of those who use illicit drugs say they recently have abused prescription drugs — including painkillers, tranquilizers and stimulants.

Among kids 12 to 17, 3.3 percent had abused prescription psychotherapeutic drugs in the last month. And among 17- to 25-year-olds, 6 percent had abused prescription drugs in the same period.

These generational trends are driving a significant change in the landscape of American drug abuse. After years of declining use of street drugs — cocaine, hallucinogens and marijuana — prescription medications have begun moving front and center as the nation’s drug of choice.

The result, according to the latest federal drug-use survey: Last year, Americans who began abusing prescription drugs outnumbered those who took up smoking marijuana.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, says the report underscores a “paradigm shift” in drug abuse and, hence, in its treatment.

Though addiction to prescription drugs is not new, the current generation of teenagers and young adults has grown up around widespread medical use of prescription drugs, Volkow says, and is inclined to view them as “safe” because they are prescribed by doctors.

“That comfort level,” Volkow says, “facilitates the abuse” of these medications.

Because of the high from such drugs as narcotic pain relievers, she adds, young users are at high risk of becoming addicted.

Peter S., 26, a recovering addict from New Jersey, says the ubiquity of prescription drugs in American homes is reassuring to kids eager to take a controlled risk or dull the emotional challenges of being a teenager.

“You don’t have to go to the drug dealer or even leave the house,” says Peter, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used. “You can just go upstairs to mom’s medicine chest and boom! You’re locked and loaded … People feel like, ‘Wow, how bad could it be? It came from our doctor. And I’m not doing street drugs — cocaine or mushrooms. I’m doing what mom has in her medicine cabinet.'”

Many parents, whose images of drug abuse may be dominated by street drugs, “just don’t realize,” Peter says, that the leftover pain pills from mom’s back spasm or the unused anti-anxiety pills prescribed for dad during a rough patch at work may furnish a kid’s first chance to experiment with drugs.

Parents “take one and feel better and put the rest up there in the medicine chest,” Peter says. “They just don’t know.”

Volkow adds that a shift toward prescription drug abuse also may make it harder for the new generation’s drug users to “age out” of their habit, as many baby boomers have done. Users of street drugs, Volkow says, frequently quit as they find that unpleasant side effects become more pronounced with age and prolonged use.

But users of prescription medicationstend to build tolerance to the effects over time, prompting them to use more, not less, and more often, Volkow says.

Researchers with the federal substance abuse agency said they remain uncertain if boomer drug users continued to do drugs into adulthood or, rather, returned to a youthful habit as they aged.

John P. Walters, the nation’s drug czar, expressed surprise that young Americans are turning away from cocaine and methamphetamine, but use of such street drugs continues among their elders.

Jim Steinhagen, executive director of the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families in suburban St. Paul, Minn., says that for young people, experimentation with prescription drugs only appears “safer” than their parents’ drug forays.

“We’re seeing kids coming to the treatment center more acutely addicted than we ever have before, so the degree of detox we need is more extensive and takes a longer period of time,” says Steinhagen, 32, a practitioner of addiction treatment.

“The kind of substance use that goes on today is like extreme sports for this generation — quicker, faster, a more dangerous thrill-seeking experience.”

The recent government report comes on the heels of a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University showing that 19 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds believe prescription drugs are easier to get than cigarettes, alcohol and street drugs.

The new report also underscores the ease with which abusers of prescription drugs can get controlled substances. More than one-half of those who reported they had recently taken prescription drugs for nonmedical uses said they got the drugs from a friend or relative for free, and almost 20 percent got them from a physician. About 1 in 10 who took prescription pain relievers said they bought or stole them from a friend or relative.

Drug-enforcement officials have long known that teenagers and young adults widely trade, sell and steal stimulant medications, heavily prescribed among student populations to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Fewer than 5 percent told interviewers that they had turned to a drug-dealing stranger to acquire prescription drugs, or logged on to an Internet site selling prescription drugs.

Peter S. says his initiation to prescription drugs came from the medicine chests of his — and a friend’s — parents.

“I had found Vicodin and Percocet and had heard about them and Xanax and Valium — the benzodiazepams — and took a couple,” Peter says. “I reached up in that medicine chest and took a couple and thought, ‘Oh this is fun.’ It made me feel floaty … It was fun in the beginning.”

The government report, which also tallies Americans’ mental-health status, makes clear that illicit drug use is frequently a form of self-medication.

Among 12- to 17-year-olds, roughly 2 million had experienced a major depressive episode in 2007 — about 8.2 percent of that age group’s population. Illicit drug use was roughly twice as high — 35 percent — among youths who had experienced depression than among those who had not.

Note: Kids prefer prescription drugs to their parents’ street drugs.

Source: Daily Press

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