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Open Access Research article

Self reported health status, and health service contact, of illicit drug users aged 50 and over: a qualitative interview study in Merseyside, United Kingdom

Caryl M Beynon1*, Brenda Roe2, Paul Duffy1 and Lucy Pickering3

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Public Health, Research Directorate, Faculty of Health and Applied Social Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Castle House, North Street, Liverpool, L3 2AY, UK

2 Evidence Based Practice Research Centre, Faculty of Health, Edge Hill University, St Helens Road, Ormskirk, Lancashire, L39 4QP, UK

3 School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brookes University, Jack Straw's Lane, Oxford, OX3 0FL, UK

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BMC Geriatrics 2009, 9:45  doi:10.1186/1471-2318-9-45

Published: 9 October 2009



The populations of industrialised countries are ageing; as this occurs, those who continue to use alcohol and illicit drugs age also. While alcohol use among older people is well documented, use of illicit drugs continues to be perceived as behaviour of young people and is a neglected area of research. This is the first published qualitative research on the experiences of older drug users in the United Kingdom.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted in Merseyside, in 2008, with drug users aged 50 and over recruited through drug treatment services. Interviews were recorded and transcribed and analysed thematically. Only health status and health service contact are reported here.


Nine men and one woman were interviewed (age range: 54 to 61 years); all but one had been using drugs continuously or intermittently for at least 30 years. Interviewees exhibited high levels of physical and mental morbidity; hepatitis C was particularly prevalent. Injecting-related damage to arm veins resulted in interviewees switching to riskier injecting practices. Poor mental health was evident and interviewees described their lives as depressing. The death of drug-using friends was a common theme and social isolation was apparent. Interviewees also described a deterioration of memory. Generic healthcare was not always perceived as optimal, while issues relating to drug specific services were similar to those arising among younger cohorts of drug users, for example, complaints about inadequate doses of prescribed medication.


The concurrent effects of drug use and ageing are not well understood but are thought to exacerbate, or accelerate the onset of, medical conditions which are more prevalent in older age. Here, interviewees had poor physical and mental health but low expectations of health services. Older drug users who are not in contact with services are likely to have greater unmet needs. The number of drug users aged 50 and over is increasing in Europe and America; this group represent a vulnerable, and in Europe, a largely hidden population. Further work to evaluate the impact of this change in demography is urgently needed.