Substance Use among the Oldest Cohorts in the Monitoring the Future study

A whopping 90% of today’s 55-year-olds in the US, the oldest cohort in the study so far, have tried an illicit drug at some point in their lives. They were young during the drug heyday of the 1970s. As parents and sometimes grandparents, they are a drug-experienced generation. As voters, they may be part of the upswing in legalizing medical and recreational marijuana use in several states.


Illicit drug use in the past year or past month is much lower among 55-year-olds. About 18% have used an illicit drug in the past year and 12% in the last month. Compare this, for example, with current-day people in their early 20s, among whom about 40% have used an illicit drug in the last year and about 25% in the last 30 days. Likely, these younger groups will also experience a decline in use as they age.






For the two licit drugs in the study, alcohol and cigarettes, the picture is different. There is less falloff with age and there are higher levels of daily drinking and smoking at higher ages. Fewer, though still 1 in 5, of older adults have had 5 drinks or more in a row during the past 2 weeks – this is about 20% of older adults compared to about 35% of young adults. But daily drinking is higher among the older group, at 11% for age 55 compared to about 5% for the early 20s. Cigarette smoking shows a similar picture; comparing the older group with young adults, about twice are daily smokers (11% at age 55 and around 6% in the early 20s).