Ageing drug addicts 'face chronic health problems'

A cocaine addict
Image caption Many older drug users first tried drugs in the 60s and 70s

"The more I seem to get older, the more it seems to go worse. At 56 now, I shouldn't be doing this.

"I shouldn't be going out grafting and then running round like a 19-year-old scally looking for heroin and coke. Like I shouldn't even be on methadone now. It's madness."

These are the words of a 56-year-old male drug addict.

Research from the Centre for Public Health in Liverpool, published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, shows he is representative of a vulnerable group of people who are long-term drug users now reaching retirement age.

As children of the 60s, they would have started using illegal drugs when it was cool and fashionable to do so.

Forty years on, what impact has their addiction had on their physical and mental health?

New phenomenon

Dr Caryl Beynon, from the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, studied a small group of people aged 49 - 61 who had all sought help from drug treatment services.

She describes a new phenomenon of ageing addicts who started taking drugs for recreational use in the hippy era.

While some drug users were simply experimenting in the 60s and 70s when drugs were more widely available, others started taking drugs later following a stressful event, like a family bereavement or the breakdown of a relationship, she says.

And some continue to use them now.

"All our focus historically has been on young people and how to treat their addictions. But perhaps we should have specific services for older drug users because they have completely different issues," Dr Beynon said.

What the study says they all have in common are high levels of ill health brought on by drug use.

Most admitted to suffering from physical conditions including circulatory problems, respiratory problems, diabetes, hepatitis, weight loss and malnutrition.

Mental health problems were also common among the group studied.

Memory loss, paranoia and fluctuating mood states were some of the conditions experienced.

But most noticeable was the sense of loneliness and isolation felt by these ageing drug users.

"Old age is normally associated with isolation," says Dr Beynon, "but older drug users tend to sever links with family and non-drug users, so their pool of peers grows smaller and smaller all the time."

Statistics show that this is an international problem.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction estimates that the number of people aged over 65 needing treatment for drug problems in Europe will double between 2001 and 2020.

Forgotten generation

In the US the number of problem drug users aged over 50 is projected to rise from 1.7 million in 2000 to 4.4 million by 2020.

The Scottish Drugs Forum calls older drugs users in Scotland "a forgotten generation".

In research from 2009, the SDF estimates that there are about 15,000 older drug users (aged 35 and over) in Scotland, making up about 27% of the 55,000 people with a drug problem in Scotland.

Recent research from the Scottish Drugs Forum, which is part of a wider European study into the current and future needs of older drug users, shows that many older users are 'OAPs' before their time.

They display patterns of social isolation and physical debilitation more frequently associated with people in their 60s, 70s or beyond, the research says.

Brenda Roe, professor of health research at Edge Hill University, said further research is needed "to enable health and social care professionals to develop appropriate services for this increasingly vulnerable group".

"We also feel that older drug users could play a key role in educating younger people about the dangers of drug use," she said.

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