Deaths due to substance abuse, particularly of alcohol and opioids, rose sharply among older Americans in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, as lockdowns disrupted routines and isolation and fear spread, federal health researchers reported on Wednesday.
Alcohol and opioid deaths remained far less common among older people than among those middled-aged and younger, and rates had been rising in all groups for years. But the pronounced uptick — another data point in the long list of pandemic miseries — surprised government researchers.
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Alcohol and opioids can interact poorly with prescription medications that many older adults take for common conditions like hypertension, diabetes and mood disorders. Misuse can lead to falls and injuries, exacerbate underlying medical conditions and worsen declines in cognition..
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“This is a hidden population that is often ignored,” said Dr. Frederic Blow, a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of Michigan Addiction Center.
Dr. Blow said that comparatively few older Americans go into treatment. Families and spouses are embarrassed, and health care providers tend to be less aggressive about referring older patients to rehab, he added.