Along with everything else it entails, growing up, for most, means breaking up with your drug dealer, having realized that you no longer enjoy the substances you once loved. That, it seems, is one takeaway from the 2015 Global Drug Survey, in which more than 25,000 of the former users who participated stated that one of their reasons for quitting was “getting too old for this sort of thing.”
But why exactly do drugs become less appealing as we get older? Here’s what the experts have to say about this kinda lame but probably also kinda necessary phenomenon.
Kenneth Leonard, Director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions: A lot of people grow out of their drug use in young adulthood, and that’s mainly because of increased responsibilities. People get married, they take on new jobs with higher responsibilities and they have children — all of those have an impact on a day-to-day basis, but they also bring people into peer networks where everyone has the same kinds of responsibilities.
In terms of the major moderating factors that people tend to have in their late 20s into their 30s and late 30s, they’re dealing with responsibilities and a cohort of individuals who just don’t drink or use drugs as much — in particularly with regard to drugs, because for the most part, everything’s still illegal, except for marijuana in a few states, and getting access to that requires having access to somebody who’s in touch with the illegal market. That becomes more and more difficult as you get older and move away from those networks.
As you get a bit older, you have a variety of things that change. Your renal function changes — your ability to get rid of drugs and metabolize them slows down, so you become more sensitive to them. Particularly after age 55 and then as you get into your 60s, elderly people tend to lose weight, and as a result, the effective dose that’s needed for them is less, so they’re sensitive for that reason. The other thing is that there’s all kinds of other physical conditions that go on — one-third of people who are in the older age range are on one or more medications, and those definitely interfere with one’s ability to metabolize alcohol or other drugs.
So you have two things going on: You have the social and personal responsibilities that would restrain alcohol or drug use, and your body is more sensitive. That doesn’t necessarily restrain people from using, but it sometimes makes them use not quite as much. So if you look at the most severe drug use — if you look at opiates, people in the 65 and older range, 55 and older range, they’ve had major increases in their deaths from opiates. They’re not dying from heroin, they’re dying from overdoses on pills, in part because of sensitivity and in part because they mix those pills with other things, like alcohol and sometimes benzodiazepines.
Having said that, in the Baby Boomers, we’re seeing increased alcohol use and marijuana use, and that probably has to do with the fact that they had those exposures in their early adulthood and don’t have the restraining factors now. Many of them are retired, and particularly among the middle class, they may be in more comfortable financial circumstances.
Sarah Benton, recovering alcoholic, author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic and clinical consultant for The Strathmore House transitional sober living program: First of all, this isn’t true in all cases, and that’s why we’re still seeing older people showing up into treatment and asking for help. There are people who maintain their drug and alcohol use into older age, and then maybe at some point there’s a reckoning, a marital issue or a job issue, or maybe not. But for some people, they’ll say that drugs stopped working for them. You’ll hear that sometimes: It’s almost like they developed such a tolerance that they stopped being effective for whatever it was that they were using them for.
Also, people’s brain chemistry and their hormones, everything changes over time, as you get older. I know people who used to smoke pot because they found that it relaxed them when they were younger, but as they got older, it started to make them paranoid and they didn’t enjoy it as much. With the same substance, there could be different responses for one reason or another. I’d also say, particularly when it comes to pot, those who have a tendency toward anxiety will report that, over time — and again, this isn’t everyone — that they feel more paranoia and more of an agitation, and less of a relaxing effect.
Now, with alcohol, I think there’s also a change in lifestyle that can happen over time. People maybe have a family, they’re getting up early for work, they’re tired. When they’re hungover, it makes life harder, and life’s already hard or tiring them. Their body is also not bouncing [back] the way it was when they were younger, which is the truth with anything — even athletically, things change when you get older. You don’t have the same resiliency, so it becomes less desirable, because they play forward the tape of, “Gosh, is this going to be worth it tomorrow when I’m struggling to get up and my three-year-old is crying.” That cost-benefit analysis is getting off-kilter.
Randy (not his real name), a dude who admits to being too old for drugs: They stopped being fun somewhere around 45. Feeling like shit the day after partying just left me asking myself, “Is this really worth it?” Cocaine and Molly were also higher quality when I grew up with them in the 1980s. Nowadays, the high is shorter, the taste isn’t as sweet and the headaches are much worse, which are all more reasons to stop. In fact, these days, I get headaches from secondhand weed smoke along Hollywood Boulevard. I swear they’re smoking ass.
I had been doing recreational drugs since I was 12 — besides heroin, there isn’t much that I haven’t tried. But as you age and your circle of friends changes, drugs just lose the allure. Having two mortgages will also straighten you out real fast.