Capital News Service
LANSING – In the last 10 years, the number of Michigan residents over 50 seeking treatment for substance abuse has doubled, a new study shows.
“There are more people in that age group because the population as a whole is aging,” said Thomas Jankowski, the associate director of research at Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology. He was not involved in the study.
Of nearly 60,000 people admitted in 2009 into public drug or alcohol treatment, 7.1 percent were 51 years or older. In 2000, the percentage was only 3.4 percent, meaning an increase of more that 3,400 according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Meanwhile, the proportion of Michigan residents over 50 rose from 27 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2009.
The Michigan Department of Community Health (DCH) study counted participants at state-funded treatment centers and excluded privately funded treatment centers.
Jankowski said that part of the increase could be attributed to the fact that the Baby Boomer generation, associated with drug use in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is now in its 50s and 60s.
Jankowski said there’s also been an increase in abuse of prescription drugs.
“People often think that if a pill helps their back pain, a pill and alcohol together will help it even more,” Jankowski said.
The rate of people 51 and older seeking treatment for abuse of alcohol with drugs more than tripled from 2000 to 2009 — from 2.8 percent to 9.5 percent, according to the study.
Mark Steinberg, an administrator at DCH’s Bureau of Substance Abuse and Addiction Services, said that while the number of reported cases of abuse of alcohol with prescription drugs is low, he worries about the growth.
“More people are getting prescriptions for sleep aids and anti-anxiety medications, which have a higher risk for dependency than other medications,” said Jankowski.
He said that depression, chronic pain and sleep disturbances are common reasons for older people to seek medical attention that may involve habit-forming prescription drugs.
“Even if 5 percent of people end up with a dependence, the raw numbers of people in the age range are increasing, so abuse is likely to rise with it,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski also said when people get over 50, their medical treatment gets more complicated.
“People can have four or five doctors that don’t necessarily communicate with one another to see who is prescribing what,” Jankowski said. That means similar medications could overlap and physicians may not know it.
James McCurtis, the public information officer for DCH, said that prescription drug abuse has a lot to do with easy access to medications.
“It’s become kind of trendy, too,” said McCurtis, partly due to advertisements for prescription drugs.
Dennis Priess, the executive director of Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services based in Gaylord, said people generally view prescriptions as safer than street drugs, but the potential for dependency is still high.
His agency serves 30 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.
He said he’s seen a significant increase in people over 50 seeking treatment for opiate abuse.
The statewide study found that treatment for heroin addiction almost doubled in the last decade for among older people from 11.2 percent to nearly 19.9 percent.
McCurtis said the poor economy and unemployment also contributes to the problem.
Unemployment for residents 45 and older is currently 9.1 percent, compared with 2.5 percent in 2000, according to the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.
McCurtis said, “There’s been a lot of job loss in Michigan. Unfortunately, substance abuse is the way some people deal with it.”
McCurtis said the results of the study are bittersweet because it shows that twice the number of people 50 years and older are seeking treatment, but it could also mean more people are substance abusers.
Priess acknowledged that a similar proportion of people 50 and over have undergone treatment in the last decade, but that the pool of people abusing substances has grown.
McCurtis said DCH hopes that the trend doesn’t signify an increase in substance abuse by older residents, but that more people are getting treatment that they didn’t seek before.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.