New research has tackled the previously unstudied field of how the older generations in UK society use illegal drugs. The results indicate that the percentages of older people using drugs is increasing significantly.When the topic of alcohol and drug use in UK society arises the media tend to focus on younger people. Club drugs, binge-drinking and the availability of legal highs seem to be the most popular topics addressed by journalists and politicians. Rightly or wrongly, these substances and the behaviours that accompany their use and abuse are framed as activities undertaken by younger generations (those under the age of thirty). Rarely are we made aware of how the older generations use intoxicating products. Drug use, it would appear, is a young person’s pass-time.
Such a statement is patently untrue. While young people may be more likely to experiment with substances; drug use occurs at all levels and age groups within society. The simple fact that a person is a mature adult does not make them immune from the allure of illegal drugs. New data recently published in the journal Age and Ageing makes a compelling case for the argument that not only do the older members of society use drugs, but they are doing so in larger numbers than ever before.
The data referred to above comes from a study titled “Prevalence of illicit drug use in people aged 50 years and older from two surveys”. The aim of the research was to ascertain the percentage people aged 50 to 65 and those 65 or older who consume cannabis, amphetamine, cocaine or LSD. These figures were then compared with similar numbers from 1993. To clarify, the two studies mentioned in the title were national surveys conducted in 1993 and 2007.
Perhaps unsurprisingly cannabis was the most widely used drug among the people sampled. From the 2007 study it was established that 1.7% of those aged 65 and older had used cannabis during their lifetime. The same study displayed that people aged between 50-65 years were significantly more likely to have tried cannabis in their life with 11.4% reported having tried the drug at some point. The percentage of people who had used cannabis during the past 12 months was 0.4% of the over 65’s and 1.8% for the 50-65 year olds.
The startling result of the study came when these figures were compared to similar data from a survey in 1993. In the earlier survey only 1% of 50-65 year olds reported having tried cannabis at any time in their life. It would seem that nearly ten times as many people who are now aged 50-65 have used cannabis compared to their contemporaries in 1993 (1% in 1993 compared to 11.4% in 2007). A similar increase can be seen in the percentages of people who have used cannabis in the past 12 months.
Prof. Robert Stewart of Kings College London who is the senior author of this study had the following to say, “The key message of this paper confirms something which has been long suspected but which has not, to our knowledge, ever been formally investigated in the UK – namely that illicit drug use will become a more common feature in older generations over the next 1 to 2 decades. One particular issue is that we really know very little about the effects of drugs like cannabis in older people but will need to work fast is research is to keep up with its wider use at these ages.”
Clearly more research is needed on how the older generations in society view and use illegal substances. It is meaningless to speculate why exactly this subject has not been addressed previously, but now that we have established this growing trend it is necessary to begin to understand it so that treatment options can be better tailored to this demographic.
Professor Stewart summed up this sentiment well, “Our data suggests at the very least that large numbers of people are entering older age groups with lifestyles about which we know little in terms of their effects on health and would benefit from further monitoring – in particular, health service staff providing care for older people should be aware of the possibility of illicit drug use as part of the clinical context, particularly as previous research and policy reports have suggested that this is often missed.”