Substance Abuse among Older Americans

The stereotype of individuals with substance abuse problems is generally centered on the younger population, equating bad choices with immaturity and lack of life experience. In reality, substance abuse affects members of all adolescent and adult age groups, including seniors.

A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) examined the demographics of substance abuse treatment admissions by older Americans from 1992 to 2008. These admissions to treatment facilities are referred to by SAMHSA as “older admissions.”

The report explains that in 2008, adults aged 50 or older represented approximately 31 percent of the total population in the U.S. In 1992, the first year of the report, total substance abuse admissions from the older adult population totaled 102,700. By 2008, that number had doubled to approximately 231,200.

There was also a drastic change in the gender split of the older admissions. In 1992, 18.1 percent of older admissions were female, while in 2008 the number had climbed to 25.1 percent.

The ethnic composition of the admissions saw a major transition over the course of the report. During the period between 1992 and 2008, non-Hispanic White admissions decreased from 65.8 percent to 55.6 percent, while non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic admissions increased from 19.9 percent to 28.8 percent and 9.8 percent to 11.3 percent, respectively.

Education levels of the admissions increased over the 17-year period of the report. High school graduates comprised 35.1 percent of older admissions in 1992, and climbed to 40.8 percent in 2008. In 1992, 22.5 percent of older admissions had some college, while in 2008 college-educated admissions comprised 31.3 percent of admissions.

Employment status also changed over time. In 1992, nearly one-fifth of all older admissions were unemployed, and in 2008 nearly one-third of admissions were unemployed. The percentage of full-time employed older admissions decreased from 23.4 percent to 16.7 percent.

Marital status and living arrangements also trended differently over the period between 1992 and 2008. In 1992, 13.2 percent had never married, while in 2008, 30.3 percent reported that they had never married. There were decreases in those currently married, from 33.3 percent in 1992 to 21.5 percent in 2008.

The information issued in the report by SAMHSA illustrates the changing face of older Americans with a substance abuse problem. The report highlights the need for low-cost treatment facility options for older Americans who are unemployed. It also shows the need for increased awareness about the gender and race demographics of the typical older admission in the U.S. The report shows major increases in female and Hispanic admissions.