The face of addiction is older than some might assume, a recent study published this November in the Journal Of Substance Use And Misuse suggests.

The researchers, hailing from the School of Medicine at New York University, analyzed the annual admissions to opioid treatment programs in New York City from 1996 to 2012, finding a significant drift over the years in the groups of people who most frequented them, particularly in terms of age. “In 1996, the majority of adults in opioid treatment were less than 40 years of age, while in 2012, the majority age group in opioid treatment were those 50–59, with large increases in those over the age of 60,” they concluded. These older drug users were also more likely to self-report physical impairments.

‘Never Before Seen’

More specifically, while people aged 50 to 59 were only 7.8 percent of the total population attending a rehab program in 1996 (2,892 in total), they became 35.9 percent in 2012 (12,301 people). Those aged 60 to 69 became 12 percent of the 2012 total, while on the flip side of things, those aged 40 or younger shifted from 56.2 percent in 1996 to 20.5 percent in 2012. Taken as a whole. those over the age of 50 represented nearly half of the NYC population in opioid treatment by 2012. There was also a slight increase in Hispanics seeking addiction treatment that corresponded with a slight decrease among blacks. This change in demographics came even as slightly less people sought drug rehabilitation within the five boroughs between the two time periods (37,038 vs 34,270).

“These increases are especially striking, considering there was about a 7.6% decrease in the total patient population over that period of time, and suggests that we are facing a never before seen epidemic of older adults with substance use disorders and increasing numbers of older adults in substance abuse treatment,” said lead author Dr. Benjamin Han, a geriatrician and researcher at NYU’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care, in a statement. “Unfortunately there is a lack of knowledge about the burden of chronic diseases and geriatric conditions or the cognitive and physical function of this growing population.”

Han and others’ findings are only the latest to mark a shift in the drug-abusing population, though earlier similar research has largely focused on national data obtained by the Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration via their treatment episode dataset, or TEDS.

“While TEDS captures data from the majority of treatment programs in the United States, one limitation of the TEDS data is that it only includes information on treatment admissions, and thus may not fully capture utilization of substance abuse treatment over time,” the authors explained. “Furthermore, studies that use TEDS data to examine aging trends are limited by defining an older adult as age greater than 50 or 55.”

Focusing on New York City, however, which boasts one of the largest and most publicly accessible methadone systems in the country, allowed the researchers to obtain a broader picture of who’s obtaining opioid abuse treatment, though they noted that their findings wouldn’t account for people receiving treatment in a more private setting. The researchers also cited evidence showing that there is a rising trend of heroin use among white young people living outside large metropolitan areas that’s occurring in parallel with the aging movement.

“Future studies are needed to better understand the specific and unique health needs of this growing population from a geriatric perspective,” they concluded. “Furthermore, new models of care are needed to address what is certain to be increasing levels of morbidity as this population ages, further emphasizing importance of integrating chronic disease management and care processes with substance abuse services.”

Source: Han B, Polydorou S, Ferris R, et al. Demographic Trends of Adults in New York City Opioid Treatment Programs—An Aging Population. Journal of Substance Use And Misuse. 2015.