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Why are older New Yorkers dying from drug overdose or suicide at a higher rate now?

Older people in New York are dying from drug overdose or suicide at much higher rates now compared with a decade ago, according to the latest America’s Health Rankings Senior Report from UnitedHealthcare.

The report found in New York, suicides have increased nearly 10%, frequent mental distress is up about 9% and drug deaths among people 65 and older have doubled in the last 10 to 12 years.

Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare employer and individual, said the social distancing required during COVID has taken a particularly heavy toll on older people.

“The risk of social isolation is measuring a lack of meaningful social connectedness among seniors,” Randall explained. “Things that put you at risk are being never married, widowed, divorced, separated, living alone, living in poverty.”

New York ranked 32nd overall in the report. There is some good news: Between 2011 and 2020, the number of adults reporting high health status went up 30% in the state. And since 2016, there are nearly 30% more home health aides able to provide care to older New Yorkers.

Aleks Malejs, recovery coach for Save the Michaels of the World in Buffalo, a peer support organization for folks struggling with addiction, pointed to fentanyl as a major cause of the uptick in drug-related deaths, because it’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and it’s showing up in heroin, cocaine, OxyContin and other drugs with more frequency.

“People aren’t necessarily overdosing or dying because they’ve done too much of something,” Malejs pointed out. “It’s happening on accident, which is terrifying. So somebody who might be experimenting with their first line of cocaine might have a terrible reaction, which could lead to death.”

Malejs noted more than 8,000 people have called for help this year alone. She emphasized it can mean a lot to people to talk to someone who’s gone through what they’re going through. Sharing she has 10 years of continuous sobriety herself, can help people realize they have the power too.

“There’s so much stigma and shame around it that people don’t want to talk about it,” Malejs acknowledged. “There’s a lot of different avenues for recovery. So it’s not just an A anymore or an AA anymore, there’s so many different ways that people could get well.”