It’s not easy to get a qualified medical expert — or any expert, really — to tell you that it’s maybe, sorta okay to do a bunch of drugs. How do I know this? Because I reached out to lots and lots of them for this story, and even the handful who were kind enough to reply mostly told me that they couldn’t possibly recommend ever trying illegal drugs.
To be clear, I’m not referring to heroin, meth or any illicit substance that’s an almost guaranteed ticket for a really bad time (aka, addiction and death). I’m talking about the stuff you come across even when you’re not looking for it, like being offered a line of blow in the restroom at the monthly preschool parents-teachers meet up (hey, I hear things).
The fact is, different people encounter different drugs at different stages of their lives. And if you’ve always been curious about mushrooms, say, but not worked up the nerve to try them until you’re 65, it would surely be useful to know if the same advice in that college pamphlet still applies to your more experienced frame.
Certainly, there are some broad advantages to trying things later in life: According to Stefan Kertesz, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, most recent research notes that the risk of a new-onset addiction to anything is most pronounced in adolescence and young adulthood. “So while anyone can potentially wind up heavily using and misusing substances, the 15- to 25-year range is of special concern,” says Kertesz. “If an 18-year-old announces to me a new drug they want to try, no matter what it is, my blood pressure goes up, and I feel anxious on their behalf. It’s not that every single young person will ruin their life, but it’s a period of special risk.”
To that end, Kertesz points to an annual study called Monitoring the Future, which includes repeated yearly surveys of both adolescents and people later in life. “As they follow people into their 30s and such, a very small number continue to remain involved in illicit drugs of any kind (save for marijuana),” he tells me.
Addiction aside, though, are there greater health risks associated with trying, say, coke or shrooms for the first time in middle age? Let’s find out!
Recent research shows that older Americans are among the fastest growing groups of pot users. “For example, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that from 2002 to 2014, marijuana use among those 55 to 64 years old rose from 1.1 percent of the population to 6.1 percent, a 455 percent increase. For comparison, usage rates among 18- to 25-year-olds rose 13 percent over the same period,” reported Live Science.
While most of the research on marijuana usage is done for the general population, a 2014 editorial in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society argued that we need more research on the elderly and weed, since it’s likely there are adverse effects that are specific to them. “Cannabis consumption causes an increase in heart rate, lesser increases in cardiac output and supine blood pressure and frequent occurrence of postural hypotension. While little is known about the effect of cannabis use on cardiovascular disease outcomes, it is believed that cannabis use can result in inadequate blood flow to the heart,” claims the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Abuse Institute.
That said, more and more people are now turning to weed as an alternative to opioids and other addictive painkillers. “I learned from some other physicians, and after trying it on some seniors, and seeing how their fentanyl and morphine use started to reduce, I started prescribing it more,” Mona Sidhu, a geriatrician who works out of Hamilton Health Sciences, told Healthy Debate.
On Shroomery.org, a forum dedicated to psychedelic discussions, Plasma21 asks:
“Say there are two people one 18 and one 50, neither have touched a single psychedelic in their lifetime, if they both took a significant amount of lsd or mushrooms, would the younger person be able to accept it all a lot easier than the elder person, simply because the 50 year old person has had 50 years in normal reality and knows nothing different compared to the 18 year old who is still hasnt seen a lot of ‘norm’?”
It’s not an uncommon question: This 35-year-old redditor, concerned about trying LSD for the first time with her boyfriend, wonders if she’s “too old and scarred from my personal issues and flaws to get anything out of it?”
“Maybe it’s too late for me. Maybe people like my boyfriend, who have done acid for the first time when they were very young, were more mentally primed to get something out of it the first time and know what to expect the next time and can prime themselves for future use.”
While the responses to these questions are mixed — some people think that the younger person will have an easier time because they’re less likely to have “cultural boundaries” (there’s no explanation of what that actually means) — the majority of people suggest that the older person will have an easier time. “I think wisdom can come with age, so the older man may be able to handle the trip a lot better than the still developing brain,” reads one response.
Still, there’s plenty of research that suggests that elderly people (defined as 65 years or older) are at an increased risk of developing psychotic symptoms. One of the potential side effects of LSD is the possibility that it could initiate a psychotic episode that lasts more than 48 hours, so you could see why someone in late middle age might think twice. That said, according to TripSafe.org, the possibility of experiencing such an episode is at a rate of 0.8 per 1,000.
Kertesz tells me that if the person he’s talking to doesn’t generally use it, he’d be less concerned with their physical health and more concerned with what’s going on in their life. “If the person I’m talking to doesn’t use drugs much at all, my main questions are, ‘Why exactly do you think you need this experience now?’ and ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” he says.
According to Malcolm Thaler, a physician with One Medical Group, there’s really no safe age to try cocaine for the first time. “It only takes one time to get a lethal heart arrhythmia or seizure,” Thaler told UPROXX. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s your 100th time or your first time, it’s just not safe.” And these days, with fentanyl drifting all over the place, he’s not kidding.
But because cocaine speeds up the heart and raises your blood pressure while simultaneously constricting your blood vessels, there’s reason to believe that an older heart isn’t built for the white stuff. According to the Mayo Clinic, hypertension is more common in middle-aged men (45 to 65 years old), with women being at higher risk after menopause. “Obviously if you’re an older gentleman with heart disease and diabetes it’s going to be riskier,” Thaler explained in the same article. “But for the average young person who uses it, even if you’ve used it before, that doesn’t guarantee that it’s not going to happen the next time.”
Based on the responses to a redditor who asked if 50 is too old to try mushrooms for the first time, the answer is unequivocally no. “Never too late, psychedelics have been used on old people and it helps them feel younger mentally,” one redditor responded. Another suggested that the only health-related issue to be concerned with is whether you have a functioning liver and a sound mind. To that end, according to TripSafe.org, the only thing you need to worry about if you’re trying mushrooms for the first time is accidentally poisoning yourself.
“The biggest risk to organs of magic mushrooms is eating a poisonous mushroom that isn’t actually a psilocybin mushroom. This is probably much rarer or almost non-existent if you’re buying the mushrooms from someone, as opposed to picking the mushrooms yourself,” reported TripSafe.org.
In fact, the only disclaimer I found about trying mushrooms for the first time as an adult came in the form of a Craigslist post. “The first article that came up in Google search was, I kid you not, “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take Shrooms & Wear Adult Diapers,” writes Jeremy D. Larson in his Medium article about how to take mushrooms as an adult. “It was an earnest post (on Craigslist?) and an altogether great drug story about exactly that, but then it was not really helpful.”
Recent studies show the growing appeal of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA/Molly), or ecstasy, to middle-aged and older adults. So while it’s well-known that using MDMA too often can lead to neurological damage, memory impairment and psychiatric disorders, MDMA-assisted therapy also may be potentially helpful in treating social anxiety in autistic adults, reports MAPS. Perry Kendall, British Columbia’s top health official, told CBC News that pure MDMA isn’t nearly as harmful for adults as people think. The issue, he says, has to do with the fact that MDMA is often laced with some other things.
Still, there’s no denying that MDMA poses certain health risks. “MDMA causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, reports Medical News Today. That means that while taking MDMA may not be as potentially addictive as coke, it’s going to carry similar risks when trying it for the first time at age 50.
Such facts, however, haven’t stopped middle-aged women from stuffing MDMA into brie cheese at dinner parties and having in-depth conversations about their fantasy sex lives with each other, of course.