Whether accurate or not, most people have a mental picture of what a drug abuser might look like —that image is rarely their grandma or grandpa.
According to research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the percentage of Americans age 50 to 59 who reported abusing illicit or prescription drugs doubled from 2002 to 2009 from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent.
Dr. David Lott, medical director of the Addiction Treatment Program at Linden Oaks at Edward in Naperville, says they see older adults with prescription drug addictions often.
"I want to emphasize that this is a growing problem," Lott says of prescription drug abuse among all ages. "It's alarming and staggering how much it's going up."
The problem, according to projections by NIDA, is expected to grow as the number of people 50 and older increases.
"It is our experience and experience around the country and epidemiologic studies show there will be a significant increase in the next one to two decades," Lott says.
How did this happen?
Dr. Martin Gorbien, director of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Rush University Medical Center, points out that a prescription for a narcotic or opioid pain medication does not make someone a drug abuser.
"Is it OK to take narcotic drug medications? Yes it is. It's not just acceptable, for some it is necessary," he explains. There are any number of conditions that cause severe and chronic pain that may require the help of narcotics or for some it is a short-term need following surgery.
But for more and more older adults the relief and even euphoria offered by the medication can be alluring.
While narcotic pain medications can have positive effects for someone in pain, they are depressants and can cause depression, Gorbien says.
Older adults are more likely to be on more than one prescription medication as well.
When a person has a history of long standing use of narcotic pain medication a physician should always dig deeper, Gorbien suggests.
"Often there's more to the story," he says.
Lott says dynamics associated with aging, such as retirement or an empty nest, can contribute to the problem. Additional time to focus on pain or depression coupled with a lack of supervision, create a dangerous situation.
Is there a problem?
Drug abuse and the behaviors associated with it, Gorbien says, have commonalities across all age groups.
"The difference is we are less suspicious of older people," he says.
There are signs to look for, Gorbien says, such as a change in the person's character or that they are always looking for their medication. Other indicators can be fatigue, memory loss or the medication tolerance.
"Often the problem is very insidious," Gorbien says. "(These narcotics) have a dulling effect. They're not necessarily drunk or high. They may think other people around them can't see anything."