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No age limit for drug abuse - 05/05/2008

A bottle of pills and a syringe

Troubling forecasts for substance abuse among older adults.

Casual, seemingly innocuous, use of over-the-counter medication by Europe's ageing population is a growing concern. Painkillers and sleeping pills available without a doctor's prescription can still lead to troubling side effects, which often go unnoticed until it's too late.

The latest report from the European drug monitoring centre estimates that by 2020, the number of people suffering from substance-use disorders will be more than double the figure for 2001. And while illicit drug use is more commonly associated with the young, that too is growing among the older generations. Between 2002 and 2005 the proportion of 40+ patients in treatment for opiate use shot from 8.6% to 17.6%.

This phenomenon will place greater demands on health services in the EU. "Programmes accustomed to dealing mainly with young populations will need to adapt to meet the needs of this older group" explained EU drug agency director, Wolfgang Götz. In view of Europe's ageing population – by 2028 more than a quarter will be aged 65 or over – it is not too soon to start preparing an adequate response.

The report highlights a number of areas where improvements can be made:

  • identifying and monitoring the problematic use of prescribed and over-the-counter medication
  • anticipating the needs of older illicit drug users in terms of addiction treatment and healthcare services
  • recognising alcohol-related problems and their possible combination with drug abuse
  • tailoring appropriate and effective treatment – existing forms of treatment might need to be changed or new ones developed

Older substance-using adults often have regular contact with medical services, but their misuse of medication often goes unnoticed or is misdiagnosed. Doctors are not trained to spot signs of over-medication, and the report identifies that this can lead to greater expense down the line when conditions become more serious, and that "overall spending for the older age group may be reduced by providing timely, effective interventions".

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