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Increase in Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

A new study identifies a dramatic rise in substance abuse treatments over the past 15 years in adults older than 50.

Researchers found admissions doubled from 6.6 percent of all admissions in 1992 to 12.2 percent in 2008.

The study, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), shows a sharp rise in the proportion of older Americans admissions related to illicit drug abuse — even though alcohol abuse is still the leading cause for admissions involving this age group.

Among its more notable findings, the SAMHSA study reveals that from 1992 to 2008 the proportion of admissions among this age group are due primarily to increases in addiction to illicit drugs:

  • Heroin abuse more than doubled — from 7.2 percent to 16.0 percent.
  • Cocaine abuse quadrupled — from 2.9 percent to 11.4 percent.
  • Marijuana abuse increased from 0.6 percent to 2.9 percent.

Prescription drug abuse rose from 0.7 percent to 3.5 percent.

At the same time admissions primarily related to alcohol abuse decreased from 84.6 percent in 1992 to 59.9 percent in 2008.

The proportion of older American treatment admissions involving multiple substance disorders has nearly tripled from 13.7 percent in 1992 to 39.7 percent in 2008.

For example, the proportion of admissions involving any alcohol abuse in combination with any cocaine abuse more than tripled – from 5.3 percent in 1992 to 16.2 percent in 2008.

While the study showed that over three quarters of all older American treatment admissions initiated use of their primary substance by the age of 25, an increasing proportion of admissions involved substances that had only been initiated within five years prior to admission.

In 2008, cocaine abuse was the leading primary cause of admissions involving substances initiated in the past five years (26.2 percent) among older Americans, with prescription drug misuse a close second (25.8 percent).

“These findings show the changing scope of substance abuse problems in America.” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D. “The graying of drug users in America is an issue for any programs and communities providing health or social services for seniors.”

“The Administration on Aging supports healthy aging,” said Kathy Greenlee, Assistant Secretary for Aging. “A critical aspect of senior health is the ability to be free of alcohol and drug addiction. It is troubling, therefore, to see an increasing number of older Americans struggling with substance abuse. This is a trend we must address for the benefit of each individual now as well as a generation of baby boomers on the doorstep of old age.”

SAMHSA sponsored the study as part of the agency’s strategic initiative on data, outcomes and quality – an effort to create integrated data systems that help inform policy makers and providers on behavioral health issues.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA)

Increase in Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Increase in Substance Abuse Among Older Adults. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 21 Jun 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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