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The Startling Rise Of Baby Boomer Drug Abuse

Baby boomers have become addicted to drugs at an alarming rate. 

The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health,  released in 2012, found illicit drug use among people between the ages of 55 and 59 had increased more than any other group.

In South Florida, the number of baby boomers being admitted to the emergency room for cocaine use has risen consistently since 2008, while cocaine-related admissions for the general population have been on the decline since 2006. Over the last decade, the number of boomers in Florida being treated for addiction to prescription drugs has skyrocketed. In 2001, 15 percent of Floridians in treatment were baby boomers. Ten years later that had jumped to 30 percent. 

So a few years ago the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, which already had a program treating addiction in senior citizens, created a new program just for boomers.

As the number of baby boomers looking for help went up, the Center realized that different generations have different needs.

“They [baby boomers] didn’t really identify with the older, older adults -- 75, 78 and older," said Juan Harris, the clinical director of both the boomer and older adult programs at the Hanley Center.

He says boomers grew up during a time when drug use was a big part of the culture.

“I still find some are romanticizing about the music and the old days, and quite a few of them are still smoking pot," said Harris.

But marijuana is not the drug that sends most baby boomers into treatment.  Alcohol is actually the biggest culprit, followed by legal drugs like sleeping pills and painkillers. 

One Woman's Story of Addiction and Recovery

A 56-year-old woman, who asked to be called Brittney, came to West Palm Beach from the Midwest for treatment at the Hanley Center. Years earlier, during a bout with pre-cancerous lesions on her liver, she started having anxiety attacks. Her family doctor prescribed Klonopin.  She was a recovering alcoholic and  had been sober for 10 years. The drug helped with her anxiety, but after eight years she began to experience some nasty side effects.

“I was just plummeting into more and more depression," said Brittney.

Her doctor told her she was addicted to Klonopin. She was shocked. 

“I'd been in Alcoholics Anonymous for so long, and I was quite sure that my doctor would never have put me in harm’s way," she said.

She wanted to get off  Klonopin cold turkey, but her doctor told her that's not how it works. She'd have to be weaned off the drug. So, with the help of a clinic, she was. But that treatment caused severe insomnia, so the doctors there gave her Ambien to help her sleep.

It didn't work. Brittney still wasn't sleeping, and now she was losing weight, too. She was cold all the time, and her body shook.

“I was just a mess, couldn’t figure it out," she said. "I went to one doctor after another, and they kept saying, ‘Well, this is just you. This is the way you’re going to be. This is just your anxiety.’ And then another one said, ‘You’re mentally ill.’ One said I’m bipolar.”

She was sure none of that was right.

“The whole world was passing me by, and I was screaming for help, but it was like one of those dreams where there’s no sound coming out," said Brittney. "I was like that every single minute of the day.”

That’s when she decided to come to Florida and get help at the Hanley Center’s Boomer Recovery Program.  “They embraced me, and within three hours they said, 'This is your problem', and it was the Ambien.”

The clinical team there told her Brittney never should have been on Ambien while being weaned off Klonopin. She was treated for 90 days. Then she transitioned into a halfway house before moving into her own apartment.

Two years later, Brittney is clean, and she thinks doctors are too quick to prescribe drugs like sleeping pills.

A Doctor's Take

Dr. John Eustace is the medical director at the South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment Center. He agrees with Brittney. “The traditional medical training now has a very small part addressed to what we believe is a major health issue, and that’s substance dependence, abuse and addiction," said Eustace. 

Credit Marva Hinton
Dr. John Eustace wants medical schools to teach students about addiction.

He thinks for too many doctors, the first choice for treatment is writing a prescription and that many doctors don't spend enough time talking to their patients. Talking, he said, can lead to non-pharmaceutical solutions. 

Drug companies aggressively market to doctors as well as consumers, and Eustace says that’s part of the problem, too.

That's a big difference from previous generations. It wasn't until the 1980s that prescription drug ads started showing up regularly on TV and in magazines.

“Very rarely did we hear about anything stronger than aspirin or Tylenol," said Eustace.

Drug companies also routinely pay doctors for giving promotional talks and doing consultations.  You can find out if your doctor has received any money from pharmaceutical companies below.

What Now?

After Brittney finished her treatment in West Palm Beach, she decided to stay in South Florida.

“I’m back in school, and I’m very busy, very happy," she said.

She runs her own business now, and she’s studying psychology.

Dr. Eustace and his colleagues with the American Society of Addiction Medicine are petitioning medical schools across the country to make substance abuse part of the standard curriculum.