Demographics Most Harmed by Addiction

Crowded street.

The U.S. struggles with an addiction problem, but this is not a problem that affects all of us equally. While there are over 20 million people in the U.S. who misuse drugs and alcohol regularly, some demographics and specific sectors of the population tend to suffer more than others do.

Addiction can befall anyone, at any time. We are not saying that some people are safe from a substance abuse habit while others are at dire risk. However, some demographics are more heavily affected by this nationwide problem than others are. We’ll examine five such groupings of individuals and we’ll show what their struggles look like.

The Elderly – A Demographic Now Harmed by Current Substance Abuse Trends

According to Today’s Geriatric Medicine, there were 1.7 million substance abusers over the age of 50 at the turn of the century. That number has since doubled, and estimates indicate that 4.4 million elderly adults will be addicted to drugs and alcohol by the year 2020.

Why do the elderly struggle with substance abuse, especially now that our medical industry is so proficient?

According to the research, substance abuse among the elderly almost always appears as alcohol misuse or prescription drug abuse. About 2.75% of older men misuse drugs and alcohol, while 0.51% of older women take part in similar habits. These percentages are much lower than the national average. However, these are just the percentages for the elderly who still live in their own homes.

For community-dwelling older adults who live in assisted living homes or senior condo/apartment buildings or communities, the statistics are much higher. When seniors live in such environments, about 15% of them misuse alcohol, and about 20% of them abuse prescription drugs. That’s almost double the national average.

The elderly face a unique struggle as they come to the close of their lives. This time of their life has to be approached well, ideally without tucking them away in a community somewhere in Florida and forgetting about them. Substance abuse trends are growing among the elderly.

Young People at Risk for Prescription Drug Addiction

Young woman taking prescription drugs.

Let’s look at the other end of the age spectrum. Drug and alcohol misuse among our nation’s youth are an ever-changing, fluid ordeal. For a good while through the mid-2000s, young adult substance abuse trends were decreasing across several categories.

More recently, substance abuse statistics among young people are on the rise once again, this time in the form of abuse of prescription drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 1 in 9 young people experiment with prescription drugs at least once a year. Further research indicates that, even if a young person experiments with pharmaceuticals just once, he or she has a 25% chance of developing a potentially lethal addiction habit.

The problem is the pharmaceuticals. The end of the 1990s and the 2000s saw our young people learning the truth about harmful street drugs. After learning that, they chose to abstain. But then prescription drugs came along. Adults were misusing them, and after all, how dangerous could a drug be that was supposed to help people? That was the logic. Now young people abuse prescription drugs at significant rates. Curbing this trend will take firmly educating young people as to the risks at hand with pharmaceuticals.

Native American Youth and Substance Misuse on Tribal Reservations

As part of the subject of young adult substance abuse, the statistics for drug use among Native American youth is particularly relevant. For example, the Monitoring the Future Survey (through the National Institute on Drug Abuse) shows us that 56.2% of Native American 8th graders and about 61.4% of Native American 10th graders have used marijuana. Compare that to 16.4% of 8th graders and 33.4% of 10th graders in non-Native youth communities.

Native american youth drug addict.

And it’s not just marijuana either. The research indicates that Native youth misuse heroin and opioid pain relievers at a rate of about two to three times higher than the national average.

What are the reasons for this? Researchers cite factors like poor socioeconomic opportunity, a lack of education on the dire risks inherent in substance abuse, and an overall acceptance of substance abuse within Native youths’ communities.

African Americans

When the opioid epidemic first reared its ugly head around the turn of the century, African Americans were not the first demographic affected by this problem. White, middle-class Americans were. Now, however, that is all changing, and African Americans are beginning to feel the weight of the opioid problem as well.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the rate of drug use in African American populations is about 12.4%. The national average is about 10.2%.

African American demographics have long struggled with substance abuse problems dating back to the 1980s during the crack cocaine epidemic. African Americans are also statistically underprivileged, economically disadvantaged, and more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than a Caucasian American would be for those same crimes. This leads to a situation where African Americans struggle to break free from the trap of several, combined, negative factors.

Women and the Opioid Epidemic

We touched on this one briefly above. Women face unique risks and dangers in the 21st-century drug addiction epidemic. According to RTI International, from 1999 to 2016, mortality rates for opioid overdoses among men grew by 321%. Yet those same numbers grew by 507% for women. And for deaths that included prescription opioids and heroin, the increase was almost double for women than it was for men.

Research has also taught us that women transition from recreational opioid drug use to addiction more quickly than men do and that women are less likely to seek out addiction treatment than men. Women are also more likely to engage in polysubstance abuse (using more than one substance at once) than men are. So while women are still statistically speaking less likely to have a substance habit than men are, women are more at risk for negative life consequences when they do experiment with opioids.

Traditionally, addiction has primarily been a problem for men. But that’s changing. We need to keep up with the times and ensure that women are getting their needs met in the ever-evolving addiction crisis.

In Conclusion

What this data has taught us is that, not only is no one completely safe from the threat of the addiction, but addiction problems touch down in different demographics differently. We have to think about that. We can’t just assume that addiction affects everyone in the same way. Rather than just using an across the boards cookie-cutter approach to addiction treatment, we need to assess each demographic’s or group’s needs, and we need to help them through their addiction struggle in a way that is fitting for them.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli ICAADE, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.