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The number of over-45-year-olds admitted to NHS hospitals in England for drug-related mental problems has risen by 85% over the last 10 years. Symptoms include hallucinations, confusion, extreme agitation and disinhibition.

There has also been an increase of 32% in admissions for poisoning as a result of drug misuse in those aged 55 and above over the last 6 years. The NHS Digital figures have prompted experts to claim that the rise in admissions is down to controversial changes in the government’s approach to drug addiction and fewer specialist treatment services.

“It is clear from this data that older people are suffering the consequences of cuts made to drug treatment services over recent years”, said Ian Hamilton, associate professor of addiction at the University of York.

Older people are more likely to have been using drugs for longer, so they will need longer in specialist drug treatment, said Dr Hamilton. Unfortunately, treatment services nowadays tend to offer abstinence-based services rather than maintaining longer-term users on substitute drugs such as methadone. Hamilton has called for the creation of safe injection facilities where users can inject drugs safely, and the greater availability of naloxone, an antidote which stops people who have taken a heroin overdose from dying.

Wake-up call on drug harm

The dramatic increases in older people ending up in hospital with serious mental health problems after taking drugs are disclosed in NHS Digital’s latest bulletin on drug misuse. In contrast, there are far smaller increases in younger people. Admissions for mental and behavioural disorders rose by just 1% in those under 45 years old, and hospitalisations for drug poisoning increased by only 6% in under-55-year olds.

These findings should be a wake-up call on the dangers of using drugs, said Dr Tony Rao, a consultant psychiatrist specialising in addiction in older people.

“Greater social acceptance of recreational drug use in childhood has meant that middle-aged and older people of this generation find it more difficult to change their attitudes towards drug use and drug-related harm as they grow older,” said Rao.

Data published last month by Public Health England also showed big increases in recent years in over-50-year-olds receiving help with addiction problems. The numbers in that age group who presented with a drug-related health condition more than trebled from 5679 in 2005/06 to 19,529 in 2017/18: a rise of 243%. The number of them who then started residential drug treatment increased by 148% over the same period from 1797 to 4455.

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