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Like many people around the world, older Americans have felt the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in many ways. And in some cases, glaring disparities have surfaced after building over the last decade.

Among those growing disparities are the mental health and drug-related challenges that have impacted the health and well-being of older Americans. New research from the United Health Foundation’s 10th annual America’s Health Rankings (AHR) Senior Report shows how the pandemic — and the isolation that accompanied it — exacerbated long-standing mental health challenges and created disparities in care for this growing part of the U.S. population.

“The well-being of older Americans was declining before 2019, but this latest research shows just how much of an impact the pandemic has had on their health — especially their mental health,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, a board-certified family physician, geriatrician and chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual.

For example, the report shows that drug deaths among Americans ages 65 and older doubled over the last decade (from 4.7 to 11.6 per 100,000), disproportionately affecting Black adults (19.8 per 100,000).

Additionally, suicide rates among this population increased 13% from a decade ago, while the prevalence of depression increased 9% and the prevalence of frequent mental distress increased 8%.

Ultimately, a decade of progress in reducing mortality among seniors was upended by the pandemic, increasing 17% between 2019-2020 according to this data. Americans of color saw the most dramatic increases in mortality, particularly among Hispanic Americans.

Finding a path forward

This startling data underscores the critical need to find innovative ways to provide older Americans with the preventive care they need, where and when they need it. More frequently, that means providing care in the home.

“We know that loneliness is a critical social determinant of health for many older Americans that can lead to additional health complications and widen disparities,” Dr. Randall said. “Home-based care — like UnitedHealthcare’s HouseCalls program – has emerged as a growing option to care for older adults and more quickly identify some of the concerning trends identified in the America’s Health Rankings Senior Report.”

Amid these emerging challenges revealed by the report, there are signs of hope. AHR data show the percentage of seniors reporting “very good” or “excellent” health increased 13% between 2011 and 2020, and another 6% in the last year. Flu vaccination rates (up 11% since 2011) and oral health (17% decrease in full teeth removal) have also seen notable improvements in recent years.

To keep all of these trends moving in the right direction, it’s important for people to rally around the older adults in their lives to ensure they’re not isolated, according to Dr. Randall.

“We urge people to help the seniors in your lives reconnect with the communities and activities they have enjoyed in the past but may not yet have returned to,” she said. “And we are focused on reducing disparities in the health care system for everyone, including older Americans.”

To learn more about the health trends impacting older Americans, read the full AHR 2022 Senior Report.

HouseCalls may not be available on all plans or in all areas.