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Behavior

Aging Minorities Struggle in Drug Treatment

For baby boomers who have abused drugs or alcohol for years or decades, the negative health consequences of addiction are particularly damaging.

But information about older Americans’ success in substance abuse programs is sparse, even though people between 55 and 75 now make up 22 percent of all U.S. overdose deaths, up from 9 percent in the late 1990s. And virtually no racial breakdown of treatment outcomes is available for this age group.

A new study by Jevay Grooms at Howard University and Alberto Ortega at Indiana University fills this gap. The researchers find that the number of older Black, white and Hispanic Americans admitted to treatment facilities and programs is steadily increasing.

The biggest growth in Black admissions was in cocaine and heroin treatment, while the rise for whites was concentrated in prescription opioids and alcohol treatment. The largest increase for Hispanics was for heroin addiction.

Amid rising admissions, however, the share of people 50 and older who completed treatment has generally trended down for each group during the period of this analysis, 2006 through 2017, though the rates bounce around quite a bit from year to year.

To gauge how each group fared over the period, the analysis controlled for various factors that determine success or failure, including education levels, employment status, and past attempts at treatment.

Older Blacks – and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics – are not as likely as older whites to successfully finish a substance abuse program. One reason is that minorities are more likely to be terminated by a treatment facility or program. Just as worrisome, however, are the widening disparities in the rates of treatment completion between each older minority group and their white counterparts – even as the disparities were closing for Blacks and Hispanics under 50.

The researchers did not dissect the reasons for treatments being terminated but noted that “lack of insurance, social stigma, distrust, lack of diversity and cultural incompetence among providers” are likely contributing factors in the racial differences.

These disparities are similar to what minorities experience in other types of health care utilization – differences dramatically demonstrated by COVID-19.

To read this study, authored by Jevay Grooms and Alberto Ortega, see “Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Completion among Older Populations.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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