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Social Isolation and Loneliness Lead to Increased Risk for Addiction

Have you or a loved one turned to drugs or alcohol to help cope with the social distancing required over the last year? Dr. Steven Ey, Chief of Service, Addiction Medicine at Hoag Hospital, shared some eye-opening statistics at our virtual Healthy Brain Fair in June. His presentation focused on how social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of substance use by older adults. He also offered substance use guidelines and solutions to improve mental health. Here are some statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s preliminary data:

  • More than 90,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the latest 12-month period for which data is available. This compares to roughly 70,000 overdoses during the same period a year earlier.
  • Synthetic opioid fatalities rose by an unprecedented 55% during the twelve months ending in September 2020.
  • Nearly three times as many people died from accidental drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2020 than from the coronavirus.
  • As of June 2020, 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of cooping with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.
  • From March 1 through April 18, 2020, there were large increases in alcohol sales. Alcohol sales in liquor stores increased by 54% and online alcohol sales increased by 262% compared to sales data from 2019.

If you were feeling blue over the last 12 months, you weren’t alone. One in four older adults reported anxiety or depression amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This rate is substantially higher than the one in 10 (11%) older adults who reported depression or anxiety in 2018. Among older adults (ages 65 and older), close to half (46%) in July 2020 said that worry and stress related to coronavirus had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 31% in May 2020.

Extensive research has documented the connection between loneliness and increased risk of premature death, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and suicide for older adults. Dr. Ey also explained there are substance-induced mental disorders, including dementia, sleep disorders, and neurocognitive disorders.

Guidelines for Seniors

Dr. Ey suggests the following guidelines for seniors:

Examine your drinking behavior in light of your mental and physical health risks, including a personal or family history of alcohol problems, and use of any medications that are contraindicated with alcohol.

Stay within the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) current guidelines for alcohol consumption: no more than one drink per day for women (two for men), and no more than seven in one week for women (fourteen for men).  A standard drink is 5 ounces of wine; 1.5 ounces of spirits; 12 ounces of beer.

While marijuana is now legal, it is still a drug of abuse.

Coordinate all medications taken with your primary care physician. Ask them to evaluate the simultaneous use of multiple drugs and potential drug interactions.

Dr. Ey stressed that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is one of the best ways to improve overall health as it allows for the start of a healthier way of life with less social isolation and loneliness. He also shared positive data that came out of the pandemic:

Approximately eight months into the pandemic, multiple studies indicated that older adults may be less negatively affected by mental health outcomes than other age groups. This is due to their resilience and wisdom – two personality traits many seniors have and could use during the pandemic. Wisdom gives seniors ways to reflect and make decisions while accepting uncertainty and the diversity of other people’s perspectives.

Being older does have its advantages.

Photo by Moritz Mentges on Unsplash

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