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Is cocaine to blame for the recent rash of celebrity deaths?

Tom Petty
Is cocaine and booze killing off the baby boomers?

Rock and roll legend Tom Petty died on October 2nd after suffering a cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu, California. And while an autopsy was performed by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office the following day, Petty’s official death certificate still lists the cause of death as “deferred,” meaning that toxicology tests have yet to be completed — and thus, that the precise nature of the singer’s demise has yet to be revealed.

But one thing is for certain, dying at the age of 66 is not normal.

Petty had admitted to drug battles throughout his life, from alcohol, pot and cocaine use to an addiction to heroin in the 1990s. Was a lifetime of hard living, as they say, to blame for his early death? At this point we don’t know, but going beyond Petty’s own case, undoubtably, there has been a rash of recent deaths of stars and celebrities who dealt with drug addiction throughout their lives.

Carrie Fisher died at the age of 60, Steely Dan’s Walter Backer died at 67, Gregg Allman died at 69. These are just a few on a shockingly long list of people who’ve recently passed away just as they were entering their senior years. Wikipedia’s “List of deaths in rock and roll” is revealing for the stats on the past half decade alone. Are we seeing past years of drug excess now having their toll on members of the baby boom generation?

It’s well known that recreational drug users at at risk of premature death. Cocaine, for one, puts a lot of strain on the cardiovascular system, causing chronic ischemic heart conditions, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke and sudden cardiac death. Cocaine users are 42 per cent more likely to have a heart attack, with cocaine-related cardiovascular complaints causing between five and ten per cent of emergency department visits in the United States — in Canada, cocaine use is roughly half that of the United States, with 1.3 per cent of Canadian adults reporting cocaine use in the past year compared to 2.2 per cent in the US.

But cocaine’s effects on longevity are only now coming to light, as people who used the drug when it first became more widespread in the 1970s and 80s are now moving through their senior years.

“Some of the risks that people aren’t aware of with cocaine is that it can accelerate the development of the hardening and ageing of the arteries in your heart and in your brain,” says addiction medicine specialist Dr Adam Winstock, to Vice. “So, basically, that accelerates the risk of heart disease at an earlier age and increases the risk of strokes. This increases in your forties and fifties.”

Beyond the rockers and movie stars, though, baby boomers in general are dealing with major health problems related to drug use, so much so that combined with increasing risks for cancer, obesity and even suicide, many in the Me Generation are now facing the prospect of dying younger than their parents did.

And it’s not just past drug use, either.

While drug and alcohol use including risky drinking are on the decline for most cohorts, they’re actually rising for boomers. In the United Kingdom, a report earlier this year found that the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions had jumped by 64 per cent over the past decade, much of it having to do with alcohol use and abuse by people aged 45 and older.

Dr Tony Rao of the UK’s NHS Foundation Trust says, “It is not just about alcohol, it is also about illicit drugs such as cannabis, and it is also about commonly prescribed medications such as opioid painkillers,” he said to the Guardian. “It is not just a problem in the UK, it is an international problem.”

And while “living it up” may have been the backdrop to their early years of excess, health experts say that there are different trends driving the boomers’ later-in-life drug and alcohol abuse. “[Older adults’] drinking and drug use tends to be around age-related issues, so things like retirement, bereavement [and] being quite lonely,” says Karen Tyrell of the alcohol and drug misuse charity Addaction, to the Guardian.

“It tends to be that society imagines that drink and drugs are problems of the young but actually there are massive problems in older populations,” she says.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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