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DRUG ABUSE UNUSUAL AMONG OLDER ADULTS

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The Bush administration's war on drugs has sparked public concern over narcotic abuse. A recent Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans now see drug abuse as "the most important problem facing this country today." While efforts are under way to eradicate illegal drug trafficking in schools and on the streets, some people wonder if interventions should also target, say, senior centers and retirement communities.

Are older folks regular customers at crack houses? Do some sneak off to bathrooms to shoot up heroin? Would a grandparent smoke pot at a party?Little is known about illicit drug abuse among older adults, but studies examining the problem suggest it is relatively uncommon. According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, only 23 percent of people age 35 and older have ever used illicit drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine, compared to 60 percent of those age 18 to 25. Older drug addicts are rare in rehab programs, comprising only 1 percent to 5 percent of all patients.

Why are there so few older narcotic addicts? One explanation is that narcotic abuse ceases spontaneously as the addict grows older. "With illicit drug abuse, there's an aging-out effect because it's a young person's game in terms of the hustle to obtain drugs," says M. Douglas Anglin, a social psychologist at UCLA. He adds that the harder it is to obtain an illegal drug, the more likely an addict is to stop using it in later years. In the process, however, the person may switch to alcohol, a substance more harmful than some illegal drugs because of the damage it does to many systems of the body.

While researchers agree that alcohol and prescription-drug abuse problems are more prevalent among the elderly, they note that the number of older narcotic addicts is rising. The reason is demographic: The baby boomers are aging. Among their ranks are many who started using drugs in the 1960s and have yet to kick the habit.

QUESTION: I'm a 77-year-old woman with a heart condition for which I take several drugs. My doctor usually prescribes generic drugs, which seem to be effective. However, I'm concerned about continuing with these medicines because of the scandal rocking the generic drug industry. Should I switch to brand-name drugs?

ANSWER: For years, generic drugs have been touted as low-cost, effective substitutes for brand-name medicines. But recent reports of corruption and fraud within the generic drug business have led many consumers to question product effectiveness and safety.

To win approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic drugs must be "bioequivalent" to their brand-name counterparts, meaning they act on the body in the same way. Today, one-third of all prescriptions are for generic drugs. These products have gained popularity because they cost about half as much as comparable brand-name medicines.

Since late June, the FDA has recalled several generic drugs, while continuing its investigation of firms suspected of compliance violations. Federal officials have found no evidence that generic drugs currently on the market are dangerous.

Nevertheless, the American Academy of Family Physicians argued in a recent position paper that generic drugs are not necessarily identical to brand-name medicines. It condemned laws requiring generic-drug substitution for persons over age 74 or with certain diseases, including congestive heart failure, diabetes mellitus, cardiac problems and depression. The FDA also announced plans to review generic drugs for diabetes, asthma and convulsions in response to physician concerns about their effectiveness and comparability.

Still, FDA officials advise consumers that there is no need to discontinue a generic drug if the medicine is working well. Those with questions about a specific drug's safety and effectiveness should consult their doctor or pharmacist.

QUESTION: I've been a widow for five years and am interested in dating. I'm 61 years old, but friends tell me that I look younger. I've been approached for a date by a fine gentleman, who I know is six years younger. Do you think I should accept?

ANSWER: Go for it! Personal choice and the disparity between the numbers of available older women and men (3:1), have led adults to look at other options besides dating an unmarried person of approximately the same age. In a Consumer's Union survey of 4,246 women and men aged 50 to 93, 69 percent of unmarried male respondents and 29 percent of unmarried female respondents in ongoing heterosexual relationships reported that their partner was at least five years their junior.

At least initially, think of a potential date as someone you're going to spend a little time with - not as a candidate for remarriage. When you're out, have fun and get to know the other person.

Send questions about growing older to On Aging, P.O. Box 84256, Los Angeles, CA 90073. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; individual answers cannot be provided.