Drug And Alcohol Deaths High Among Older Americans

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The risk of death from drug overdoses among individuals 65 and older has more than tripled over the past two decades, and the rate of alcohol-related deaths will increase by more than 18% between 2019 and 2020, according to a new study.  

As per US News, even though drug overdoses account for a small proportion of deaths among older adults, the overdose mortality rate increased from 2.4 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2000 to 8.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2020 among adults 65 and older,

according to a report released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, over 5,200 deaths were attributed to drug overdoses out of more than 2.5 million deaths among older persons overall.  

The analysis included both unintentional and purposeful drug overdoses, and it revealed significant gender, racial, and ethnic differences in overdose mortality among older Americans. 

The fatality rate from overdose among older males climbed by an average of 5% per year, from 2.7 per 100,000 in 2000 to 5.7 per 100,000 in 2014, before increasing by an average of 14% per year to reach 12.3 per 100,000 by 2020. Over the previous two decades, the drug-related mortality rate among women aged 65 and older has more than doubled, from 2.3 deaths per 100,000 women in 2000 to 5.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2020.  

Among both older men and women, the overdose death rate in 2020 was higher among those 65 to 74 than among those 75 and older, with 19.2 per 100,000 for males and 7.9 per 100,000 for women in that younger age. According to the report, the disparity in overdose fatality rates between older men and women increased from 1.2 times higher for men in 2000 to 2.1 times higher in 2020.  

Similar to previous research indicating a larger increase in the rate of unintentional or undetermined intent overdose deaths among Black individuals – and a higher rate of such overdoses overall – the new study found non-Hispanic Black men and women 65 to 74 years old had the highest rates of drug overdose deaths among older adults in 2020, at 67.3 and 12.0 per 100,000, respectively. The incidence jumped 31% among Black men in this age range compared to 2019, while the rate increased 21% among Black women.  

Black folks also had the greatest fatal overdose rate among men 75 and older in 2020, at 10.2 per 100,000. Among women, whites had the highest prevalence in that age range at 3.8 per 100,000.  

The study pointed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl as a main driver of the increase in overdose death among older Americans, as in the population overall. The fatality rate among people 65 and older involving such medications climbed 53% between 2019 and 2020, from 1.9 fatalities per 100,000 to 2.9 per 100,000, according to the report.  

The report was one of two released on Wednesday that revealed a worrisome increase in older Americans’ substance abuse. According to a second estimate, the alcohol-related mortality rate for persons 65 and older climbed from 17.1 per 100,000 in 2019 to 20.1 per 100,000 in 2020. In 2020, alcohol-related disorders were the underlying cause of mortality for 11,616 older persons.  



In 2020, men between the ages of 65 and 74 had a greater alcohol-related mortality rate than women, with 43.4 deaths per 100,000 men and 12.9 deaths per 100,000 women. Among individuals aged 75 and older, men had a mortality rate of 21.5 per 100,000 compared to women’s rate of 5.3 per 100,000.  

The study found that among racial and ethnic groupings, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the greatest rate of alcohol-induced death among those 65 and older, with 55.1 fatalities per 100,000 in 2020, a about 47% rise from 2019.  

The rate among older Hispanic individuals climbed by about 10% from 2019 to 2020, rising to 23,1 per 100,000, while the rate among older African-American and white adults increased by close to 20% from 2019 to 2020.  

Despite the fact that drug overdose and alcohol-related mortality among older persons represent for a modest proportion of deaths in this group and overall, the findings of the new studies provide cause for concern.  

Ellen Kramarow, a health statistician at the NCHS and co-author of both analyses, says the findings of the overdose study, in particular, demonstrate that the drug crisis has had as diverse an effect on older Americans as it has on the rest of the population and that the factors fueling fatal overdoses among older adults are likely similar to those that have contributed to the rise in overdose deaths among younger Americans.  

Notably, additional research has implicated the lethality of the illicit drug supply as the primary force behind the huge increase in the overdose fatality rate among American adolescents.  

“The population aged 65 and older is not homogeneous; it is actually heterogeneous,” explains Kramarow. It is reasonable to assume that some of the same forces that effect younger individuals also affect older people. 

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