Drug and alcohol related deaths among elderly TRIPLED in last two decades, signal troubling trend

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that showed drug and alcohol-related deaths of the elderly have increased drastically in recent years.

The report, which was released on Wednesday, showed dramatic rises in substance abuse-related deaths in Americans over 65. Data show that the group’s death rates from drug overdoses have tripled in just two decades. There were 2.4 deaths per 100,000 people ages 65 and over in the year 2000, and 2020 saw those numbers increase to 8.8 per 100,000. That’s a 266% increase in twenty years.

While the uptick in drug overdose deaths is a concerning trend, the totals are still vastly outnumbered by alcohol-related fatalities. According to the CDC’s report, “Over 5,000 people ages 65 and over in the U.S. died of a drug overdose in 2020, and more than twice that many (11,616) died of alcohol-induced causes.”

Both have been on the rise in recent years, but it appears the pandemic may have only served to exacerbate these issues. The report stated that alcohol-induced deaths have been climbing since 2011, but rose more than 18% from 2019 to 2020. The deaths appear to be disproportionately of men. Alcohol-induced deaths were “three times higher among men ages 65-74 than among women, and four times higher among men ages 75 and over than among women of that age.”

Overdose deaths continue to be fueled by the opioid epidemic as synthetic opioids and fentanyl have impacted the elderly similarly to the general population. Death rates from these drugs increased a shocking 53% from 2019 to 2020.

The report largely showed that Americans over 65 are moving in lockstep with their younger cohort. According to another study published in JAMA, people aged 35 to 44 years saw alcohol-related deaths increase by 39.7%, the largest margin of any age group, and people aged 25 to 34 years followed closely behind at 37%.

Similarly, synthetic opioid-induced deaths (primarily fentanyl) across all age groups, skyrocketed to staggering levels in only a few years. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdose deaths related to these drugs went from less than 10,000 in 2013 to 56,516 reported in 2020. In 2019, the numbers were below 40,000 which continues to show the impact the pandemic had on those struggling with substance abuse.

The rise of substance abuse has been felt by professionals who are aiming to help people who are struggling with addiction.“We are scrambling to try to keep the wait times to where they had been prior to COVID,” Kevin Hill, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical School and director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center told the Harvard Gazette. “And we’re having a lot of trouble doing that.”

Hill pointed to the pandemic as the variable that served as a force multiplier for substance abuse.

“We’ve had people who were in a precarious position prior to the pandemic, and some of those people have really struggled,” Hill said. “I’ve had numerous patients who were doing well prior to the pandemic and the pandemic pushed them over the edge and put them in a difficult position. And we’ve also had a number of people whom we had never seen before and were drinking on their own and had family members and physicians reach out. It is unusual in the sense that among them are some patients who are older and have successfully navigated many of life’s challenges without alcohol. The pandemic arrives and they find themselves drinking in an unhealthy way.”

On the fentanyl front, researchers at the University of Houston are developing a ‘vaccine’ that blocks the harmful drug from entering the user’s brain, preventing drug-induced euphoria in an effort to curb addiction. The study, published on Pharmaceutics, shows that researchers had success with their vaccine in the lab on rats. The shot was able to block fentanyl from entering the brain of their subject while still allowing other painkillers to pass through, unabated. The study claims that the data support further clinical studies of the vaccine.

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