It’s no secret that illicit drug use and abuse is costly—both to the health of addicts and to the communities around them. Statistics suggest that the cost to society in the U.S. alone reaches more than $110 billion.

Now, key findings of a study conducted by U.K. researchers suggest that aging users of illicit drugs are increasingly finding that they need the help of health and social services programs. The effects of long-term substance abuse such as chronic health problems and quality of life issues are sending a growing number of older users through the doors of government-sponsored programs, the study says, pointing out that this could begin to stress some systems.

“This exploratory study, together with our wider research, suggest that older people who continue to use problematic or illegal drugs are emerging as an important, but relatively under-researched, international population,” says lead author Brenda Roe, professor of health research at Edge Hill University. “They are a vulnerable group, as their continued drug use, addiction and life experiences result in impaired health, chronic conditions, particular health needs and poorer quality of life. Despite this, services for older drug addicts are not widely available or accessed in the U.K.”

The study was conducted by the Evidence-based Practice Research Centre at Edge Hill University and the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University.

Statistics reveal that the numbers of people over 50 who will seek out services for drug or alcohol problems in the U.S. will reach 4.4 million by 2020. The numbers were 1.7 million in 2000.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction estimates that the number of people over 65 seeking the same services in Europe will double for the same time period.

Interviews were conducted with eleven people between the ages of 49 and 61 who were voluntarily seeking drug treatment services.  The average age of participants was 57 including nine men and two women.

All participants were single, and living conditions ranged from a caravan and hostel to a care home and social housing.

Findings revealed that while most of the interviewees started using drugs or alcohol as a youth or young adult, some did not begin to abuse drugs until later in life.

Of those who started in their younger years, many cited recreational use or experimenting as the reason for use. Those who started later in life cited a reaction or response to stressful events such as death or divorce.

The types of illicit drugs used varied with mention of magic mushrooms, LSD, amphetamines, cannabis, heroin and methadone. Often, alcohol use and smoking accompanied illicit drug use.

Frequency of use also varied with some users increasing intake over time, while others attempted periods of abstinence or decreased use. Methadone was used by all but two of those interviewed for the purposes of maintenance or reducing drug use.

Participants also voiced a desire to use drugs responsibility and to take precautions for safety based on previous experiences.

Findings from the study can be found in the September issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing.