Deadly overdose rate triples among seniors in past two decades as alcohol-induced deaths also rise

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Drug overdoses and alcohol-induced deaths are afflicting seniors in the U.S. at alarming rates.

The overdose death rate among seniors has tripled in the past two decades, jumping from 2.4 deaths per 100,000 people ages 65 and over in 2000 vs. 8.8 in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. 

Seniors’ alcohol-induced deaths also rocketed: 18% from 2019 to 2020, from 17 per 100,000 seniors to 20 per 100,000. Alcohol-induced deaths — which include conditions such as liver disease, cardiomyopathy and pancreatitis — have been on the rise for seniors since 2011, per the CDC.

In 2020, 5,209 seniors died of drug overdoses and 11,616 seniors died from alcohol-induced causes.

Part of this is due to the generational makeup of today’s seniors. 

Baby boomers developed drug and alcohol habits in their youth that some have carried with them through the rest of their lives, Alexis Kuerbis, an expert on substance abuse among older adults at the Silberman School of Social Work in New York City, told CNBC.

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“Baby boomers obviously are a very different generation than the silent generation or the World War II generation,” Ms. Kuerbis said. “Baby boomers were far more open to using alcohol and drugs during their younger years, but also through their middle-aged years and now they are older adults.”

Anne Fernandez, a professor in Michigan Medicine’s department of psychiatry in Ann Arbor, told U.S. News & World Report that drug and alcohol abuse generally tick up during major stressful events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

She said the use of potent substances such as fentanyl have also added to the rising death toll from drug use.

“Early on, the opioid overdose crisis was driven by prescription opioid use, but now it is driven by highly lethal synthetic opioids like fentanyl in the drug supply,” Ms. Fernandez said.

Death rates from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased 53% among seniors from 2019 to 2020, according to the CDC.

In the over-65 category, Black Americans had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths. As for those over 75, White women had the highest death rate of any one group.

American Indians had the highest rate of alcohol-induced deaths for those 65 and older, which was twice as high as the next closest group in Hispanics. The CDC said the rates for alcohol-induced deaths rose nearly 47% from 2019 to 2020.

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