Older people are using way more marijuana than young people.

Retirees love marijuana
Retirees love marijuana

A recent study shows that 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.

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).

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