Addiction may be more prevalent in the young, but getting treatment is an older person’s game. A new study shows that being older is associated with better addiction treatment outcomes.
According to the latest National Survey Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the youngest adults have more than double the rate of addiction of those over 26.
Yet, they are significantly less likely to seek treatment. Only 14% of addiction treatment was received by 18-to-25-year-olds. That leaves a whopping 86% of addiction treatment clients who are 26 or older.
Good news for them: Older adults were more likely to successfully complete treatment and less likely to re-admit in the calendar year in a recently completed study of an addiction treatment center’s 2019 clients. (Baksh, 2021)
Many addiction treatment counselors would nod their heads at this statement in recognition of their own experiences.
But why does addiction treatment “take” better with age? There are three (or possibly more) reasons why this might happen.
It’s time to grow up
“You can see it petering off as people start getting proper jobs and earning money. There are two groups… one group is nearly 30… [they are] starting to get married and have babies. [Then there are] my friends who just graduated two years ago. A lot of them are doing post grads and stuff. I notice the attitudes [about] drinking are quite different. People in my age group are still more likely to go to the pub several nights a week, [but with the older group] it’s more family [oriented].”- Jen, 25 (HealthTalk.org)
One reason that older people are more likely to seek treatment is that their addiction is now more noticeable. Substance use is much more prevalent in younger adults than it is in those 26 and older. Therefore, after 25, some of their friends are likely to be leaving it behind… or at least cutting back.
Those still in the grip of addiction, then, stand out a lot more among an increasing number of people who don’t use or drink (or aren’t using or drinking as they used to) in their social circle.
Also, at some point, adulthood sets in. Food and shelter are needed. Transportation must be had. Bills must be paid.
To do that, a steady income must be obtained.
With a full-time job in the picture, it’s hard to continue drinking and using at the same level as before. Being hungover or high just doesn’t mix well with employment.
Those who cannot overcome substance use will, many times, eventually find that they are short of money, friends, family and even a place to live.
The worse the addiction becomes, the more obvious it is… both to the addict and those around them.
Negative consequences start happening
“I hit rock bottom – lost my girl, lost my job, lost my car, didn’t have a place to call home, devastated my parents, stole from my family, and was tired of being miserable. I have been sober for 13 years now and will never look back.” (Reddit)
The more years you live, the more experiences you have. And the longer you live with addiction, the more likely you are to experience negative consequences.
It could have been an arrest. A jail sentence. Being kicked out by family and friends. Being homeless. Losing your children because you can’t take care of them. Feeling like you have nowhere to turn. A friend who overdosed – or your own overdose. Or, maybe you are just sick and tired of being sick and tired.
All of these are common experiences for those struggling with addiction who are finally ready to make a change.
It may not be the “rock bottom” that signifies the loss of everything. It could just be a single negative event, or a series of them, that leads to an openness to try to climb out of addiction. The exact circumstances are different for everyone.
The common thread, though, is that it takes time. Time to get addicted, time to realize its effects on your life, and time to experience those consequences.
The older you are, the more likelyyou’ve run life into the ground, making you open for a change.
Your Chief Executive Officer isn’t onboard until 25
Adolescents do about as well as adults on cognition tests… but if they’re feeling strong emotions, those scores can plummet. The problem seems to be that teenagers have not yet developed a strong brain system that keeps emotions under control. (Zimmer, 2016)
The pre-fontal cortex is the brain’s CEO. And it’s not fully formed until the age of 25.
Although it may be the last to develop, the pre-frontal cortex is perhaps the most important region. Responsible for good judgement and forethought, or the ability to foresee long-term consequences of actions, it allows us to stop doing something that will be harmful to us in the future. No matter how good something may look now, we are able to visualize the long-term consequences of our actions and put the brakes on.
If this capability is not fully developed until 25, how do younger adults function?
The answer is, with another part of the brain. They process information using their emotions, carried out by the amygdala.
That’s why adults tend to work on reason while teens run on their emotions. They aren’t thinking – they are feeling. (University of Rochester Medical Center)
In fact, a study published in Psychological Science found that young adults didn’t perform as well on a cognitive test when told to expect a loud noise at the end.
Brain scans revealed that these 18-to-21-year-olds had unusually high activity the brain sectors that process emotions and low activity in the regions responsible for controlling emotions, as compared to those who weren’t informed there would be a noise.
One of the study’s authors commented that their brains “looked like teenagers” on the scans. (Zimmer, 2016)
One thing to remember is that 25 is not a “magical” age. The brain is not done with development. In fact, new connections in our frontal lobe still form up to age 30 – and maybe even longer. (Zimmer, 2016)
This could be why we continue to get wiser with age.
A word of caution
Every person is unique. Some overcome addiction on their own. Others need treatment. Some move past it at a relatively young age; some are still struggling at 70 years old and beyond.
Younger adults in treatment can be successful – it’s happened thousands of times (and perhaps more).
And, of course, no matter where you are in life, the earlier addiction can be overcome, the better. The sooner you can successfully complete addiction treatment, the more time you will have to bounce back and build a new life founded on being clean and sober. And the sooner you can halt the negative consequences and start to experience the rewards of a life free from substance abuse.
What the new addiction treatment study showed, more than anything, is that there is hope for people of all ages who are suffering addiction’s devastating effects.
The message is clear: You are never too old to start again. Start now— where you are. Keep putting one foot in front of another, and eventually you will find yourself with a much better life.
Baksh, J., LMHC, MCAP. (2021, January 27). Florida drug and alcohol Rehab CLIENT Study 2019. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from Foundations Wellness Center
Drugs and alcohol (young people). (n.d.). Retrieved February 01, 2021, from HealthTalk.org
R/AskReddit – Sober Redditors, what made you get clean? (n.d.). Retrieved February 01, 2021, from Reddit
Understanding the teen brain. (n.d.). Retrieved February 01, 2021, from University of Rochester Medical Center
Zimmer, C. (2016, December 21). You’re an adult. your brain, not so much. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from New York Times