Researchers have observed a significant increase in marijuana use among older Americans over the past decade. Pictured: John Rotherham's relatives help out with bud trimming at his Nature's Herbs & Wellness Center in Garden City. From left, aunt Judy Gochenour, mom Mary, dad John Rotherham and uncle Elmer Gochenour work the morning shift on Dec. 17, 2013. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Studies show big increases in older Americans’ marijuana use, drinking

I wrote last week on how fewer teens are using drugs or alcohol than at any point in the past few decades.

Indeed, while anti-drug PSAs still encourage parents to talk to their teens about drugs before someone else does, two recent studies suggest there’s another high-risk population we should be worried about: our kids’ grandparents.

The first study found that, since 2006, marijuana use has increased significantly among adults age 50 and up. A decade ago, roughly 4.5 percent of people ages 50 to 64, and 0.4 percent of seniors age 65 and up, had used marijuana in the past year. By 2013, those numbers had increased to 7.1 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively.

In percentage terms, marijuana use among 50- to 64-year-olds increased by 57.8 percent, while among seniors ages 65 and up, it ballooned by a whopping 250 percent.

The study, based on over 45,000 responses to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, isn’t the first to note that marijuana use is increasing rapidly among older adults. But it digs more deeply into the demographics of older Americans’ marijuana use, uncovering some interesting findings.

Among the 50 and older set, white (5.1 percent) and black (5.1 percent) Americans are more likely to smoke pot than Hispanics (2.6 percent). Older adults with less than a high school education (5.1 percent) or with less than $20,000 in income (5.4 percent) use marijuana more than average (4.8 percent).

Older folks who are married (4.0 percent) are much more likely to indulge in the occasional toke than those who are divorced or separated (1.6 percent). But those who are single (8.1 percent) or widowed (8.5 percent) outsmoke all the others.

One area of potential concern is the correlation between marijuana use and mental health issues among older adults. Among those 50 and older, people who have had depression (11.4 percent) or anxiety in the past year (9.0 percent) are much more likely to smoke marijuana than average. A number of studies have shown a link between marijuana use and mental disorders.

Baby boomers marijuana use study
(The Washington Post)

Given the widespread prevalence of medical marijuana laws (over half of the states, plus D.C., as of this year), some seniors may be turning to marijuana to treat the ailments of old age. Earlier this year, one study found that Medicare reimbursements for a number of common prescription medications dropped sharply after the introduction of medical marijuana laws.

The survey used as the basis of this new study doesn’t differentiate between medical and nonmedical use of marijuana, so it is unclear why more older adults are turning to weed. Medical or not, it’s clear that the rise in marijuana use among older adults is driven by the aging of the baby-boom generation, who dabbled extensively with pot in their youth and may be returning to it in old age for a variety of reasons, according to researchers.

“The trends noted in our study are likely capturing a major transition in the aging of the Baby Boomer generation,” the authors write, “and highlights how this cohort of older adults are different in substance use behaviors compared to the generation before it.” And since there are still plenty of boomers under 65, the trend toward increased drug use in old age is likely to continue in the next decade, they add.

The second paper, recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, looks at the prevalence of binge drinking and alcoholism among the same cohort of older adults.

For starters, older adults are still way more likely to drink than they are to smoke pot — 63 percent had drunk alcohol in the past year in the period from 2013 to 2014. But from a public health standpoint, researchers are more concerned about the prevalence of binge drinking — having five or more drinks on the same occasion.

In the period from 2005 to 2006, 12.9 percent of older adults had binged in the past month. By 2013 to 2014, that share had risen to 14.9 percent. Monthly binging was more common among Hispanics (17.2 percent) than other races, among wealthy individuals (20.9 percent), and among those who regularly used tobacco (27.2 percent) or other drugs (35.6 percent).

Marital status affects binge drinking differently than it affects marijuana use. The widowed (8.6 percent) are less likely to binge regularly than married people (14.6 percent). But divorced (18.6 percent) or single (18.3 percent) were the groups mostly likely to binge.

And while older men (21.5 percent) are more than twice as likely to binge drink as older women (9.1 percent), the rate of binging has increased much more rapidly among women in recent years, increasing 44 percent from 2005 to 2006, when only 6.3 percent binge drank.

Public health-wise, an increase in the use of any intoxicating substances — legal or otherwise — carries unique risks for older Americans. Older adults are more likely to be on prescription medications, and those medications — particularly painkillers or antidepressants — may interact negatively with alcohol or marijuana.

Falls are also more likely when you’re drunk or high. A tumble that a 20-something could brush off might prove devastating to a senior citizen.

But New York University’s Joseph Palamar, a co-author on both studies, says he’s worried less about health problems and more about legal and social issues arising from increased senior substance use.

“As always, my biggest concern (related to marijuana use) is the risk for arrest or incarceration,” he said in an interview. Given that the recreational use of pot is still illegal in most states and at the federal level, seniors who smoke weed may face consequences including jail time, asset forfeiture and crippling legal fees stemming from marijuana possession.

“Nobody wants their grandma to be arrested or incarcerated,” Palamar added.

With increased alcohol use — particularly binge drinking — there are also a host of social consequences to consider, he said. At seasonal holiday parties where booze is served, for instance, “the young people have (always had) to worry about doing something inappropriate in front of their bosses.” The new studies suggest that now, “we also have to worry about the boss getting out of hand in front of his or her employees.”