America’s views on illicit drugs are constantly evolving with each generation. Whereas previous generations were relatively sober and generally frowned upon excessive drug use, the aging “Baby Boomers” still frequently partake in recreational drug use at unprecedented levels – so much so, in fact, that if current trends continue, there are expected to be more than 5.7 million people over the age of 50 with a substance abuse problem by the year 2020. According to recent studies, the older drug abusers of today follow one major trend – most of them use cocaine on a semi-regular basis.
A sample study of elderly hospital visits for illicit drugs across the country (in 2008) shows that 60% of the population were between the ages of 50 to 54 years, 38% were between 55 and 75 years, and a mere 2% were older than 75. Of these age groups, 60% were admitted for cocaine – more than heroin and marijuana combined. Based on these preliminary studies, it seems cocaine sends the elderly to the hospital more often than any other illegal drug to date.
Yet this danger does not seem to detour older people from steadily using cocaine whenever they can. 57% of older cocaine users report that they use the substance every day, according to a 2015 study. When used intravenously, however, the number of daily users goes down significantly. A 2006 government study reveals that only 13% of people over 50 who inject cocaine use it daily.
Examining individual drug history often provides additional backstory as to the dangerously addictive consequences of long-term cocaine use. Although many elderly people continue to use cocaine well into their later years, it appears the majority of users were introduced as teenagers or young adults. A 2010 study, for example, found that 85% of veterans who were addicted to crack cocaine have tried it for their first time before they were 50-years-old. While it is not unheard of for adults to begin using cocaine later in life, the records show that they are generally continuing a pattern of abuse they learned early on. Either way, the high prevalence of lifetime users speaks volumes as to how addictive the substance can be.
Psychological addiction aside, cocaine abuse is widely associated with a variety of physical health problems, including cardiac and pulmonary arrest, stroke, and gastrointestinal failure. Being older or elderly exacerbates these complications, and makes the consequences of cocaine abuse even more life-threatening than with younger users. As the body and brain ages, its ability to metabolize toxins decreases, leading to a greater chance of having a psychotic episode and other cocaine-related problems. Their aging cardiovascular systems further increases the chances of cardiac arrest and other fatal respiratory events. The likelihood of serious injury through accidental falls is greater as well.
As to why older people tend to abuse cocaine, experts suggest that they may be self-medicating to cope with a series of problems that are unique to their age group. With advanced age often comes loneliness, retirement (free time), disposable income (pension plans and social security), and the absence of family and close relationships to prevent them from making poor decisions. Cocaine can also cause a rush of euphoria that lessens the pain and provides temporary relief from boredom and depression. Many elders, therefore, are abusing cocaine to avoid a larger, more complex issue.
Overall, the growing number of elderly patients in the hospital for cocaine abuse underscores the drug’s undeniably addictive properties and dangerousness. Hopefully, the next generation will be able to resist cocaine addiction and reverse these startling numbers.