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07/16/2012 03:43 pm ET

Substance Abuse Among Adults Over 50 (VIDEO)

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Rich, one of a growing number of people over 50 who have turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with life's stresses, knew he had a problem when "the wheels fell off the car [of my life]...my family situation was not good, my wife had had enough, my children had had enough." His story ended in success, as he is now in recovery, but "it was hard for me to come back," he told "The Today Show."

Substance use and abuse among older Americans has reached a peak, a recent government survey shows -- nearly five million adults over the age of 50 used an illicit drug in the past year, more than any generation before. The drugs older Americans turn to to cope are also often legal, namely alcohol and prescription drugs.

Brad Lamm, author and Founder and CEO of Intervention Specialists, a crisis intervention agency, described the phenomenon as "AARP-onset" -- as many people over 50 age, they turn to substances to "deal with life's normal stressors," such as planning for retirement and physical decline.

Additionally, the younger you use, the more likely you are to develop a problem later -- so the generation that came of age in an era of "reaching for something," be it street drugs or self-medication with alcohol or prescriptions, have often already formed the habits that are now manifesting themselves as unhealthy and destructive coping mechanisms, psychiatrist Janet Taylor told "The Today Show."

However, the real takeaway from the government survey is the challenge it presents to societal perceptions of drug use and addiction -- drug addicts are not just "the person on the corner," Taylor said. "No one is immune from this, and so it's not about pointing fingers, but understanding how you cope, what you use, and really being aware of it."

Check out the video above for the full story from "The Today Show."

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