10 people die from illicit drug overdoses every day in Canada, study suggests

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An average of 10 people died from an illicit drug overdose every day in Canada in the two years leading up to March 2018, according to a federal analysis aimed at giving a better picture of those at greatest risk from the burgeoning overdose crisis.

The Public Health Agency of Canada study shows those who died ranged from employed people who never had contact with the justice, social assistance or hospital systems to those with little work history and long-term legal and social issues.

The new analysis, released Tuesday, examines the social and economic backgrounds of those who died from drug overdoses in B.C., where the agency says the national overdose crisis is most acute.

Sarah Blyth, who pioneered the model for many overdose prevention sites in Vancouver, said many overdose deaths come down to a loss of hope.

« The more bad experiences a person has in their life, the more hopeless they feel and the less likely they might be to care, » said Blyth, who co-founded the Overdose Prevention Society in 2016.

« If you’re living in an alley and everything’s going wrong, your life continues to spiral in a way where there’s nothing positive. »

Sarah Blyth co-founded the Overdose Prevention Society and, along with a group of volunteers, has set up unsanctioned, pop-up supervised injection sites. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Deaths have doubled 

The analysis showed that in B.C., the number of people who died of an illicit drug overdose more than doubled over five years — from 293 in 2011 to 639 in 2016.

Nearly 75 per cent of those who died were men between the ages of 25 and 54, and most overdoses happen when people are using alone indoors, the study showed.

Paramedics respond to an overdose in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2016. (Natalie Clancy/CBC)

Almost a quarter of those who died visited an emergency room in the year before their death. Around 17 per cent of those hospitalizations were for opioid poisoning or mental health issues.

Blyth said it’s common for users who seek treatment to be back on the street within a week.

Mental health disorders

The B.C. Coroners Service has previously said more than half of those who died from drug overdoses in B.C. in 2016 and 2017 had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or had evidence of being mentally ill.

In September, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said it’s clear only a « hodgepodge » of services are available when it comes to mental health in B.C.

« We know from speaking with families of those who died that many times families are beside themselves trying to find help for their loved ones and trying to find help perhaps in that window of opportunity where the individual is looking for help or willing to accept help, » Lapointe said.

B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has said ‘we wouldn’t be seeing the deaths we’re seeing … if not for fentanyl.’ (CBC)

Employment status

The analysis found only a quarter of people who died from drug overdoses were employed in their last five years of life. Those who did have a job made a little more than $28,400 — less than half the B.C. average.

About a fifth of those workers had jobs in construction, with 13 per cent working in building maintenance, waste management and other support service industries. 

Around 40 per cent of those who died of an overdose didn’t receive any social assistance benefits in their last five years.

Police contact up

The majority of people who died of an illicit drug overdose didn’t have any contact with police in their last two years of life.

Those who were accused of a crime in their last two years were most often accused of shoplifting. One-third of those died within three months of that police contact.

Blyth said drug users’ interactions with police and other officials need to be less about criminalization and more about getting help.

« They need help. You can do that by not having police arresting drug users all the time and sending them on to be treated in a health-based way, » Blyth said Tuesday.

« All of it points to safe drug supply, more detox, more decriminalization. »

With files from Yvette Brend and The Canadian Press

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Familiar music could give Alzheimer’s patients a cognitive boost, study suggests

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It’s long been known that Alzheimer’s patients often retain musical memories, even when recall of names, faces and places has been lost as the disease relentlessly destroys key areas of the brain.

Now Canadian researchers believe they know why, thanks to the power of MRI brain scanning.

Toronto scientists enrolled 20 people with early-stage Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment in a study to discern what was occurring in their brains while they listened to familiar music and a composition they had never heard before while having MRI scans.

When subjects listened to the previously unknown composition, it lit up a region of the brain known as the temporal lobe, « which is what we would have predicted because that part of the brain gets activated when you listen to anything, » said  Dr. Corinne Fischer, director of the memory disorders clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital and one of the researchers.

But when participants listened to familiar music — from a playlist of songs they had chosen going back at least 20 years — there was a much more extensive pattern of activation of several areas of the brain, including those involved with emotion and the processing of language, movement and memory.

« There’s always been this question of why music and the ability to appreciate music is preserved, even in the latest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, » said Fischer.

« And I think one of the things this tells us is that it may be not so much the music as it is that familiar aspect of the music and the fact that that’s activating parts of the brain that aren’t typically damaged by Alzheimer’s pathology.

« So that’s why even though you might not know your name, you may not know your environment, you may still be able to appreciate a song because it’s activating those areas that are not damaged. »

Michael Thaut, the study’s lead author and a professor of music and neuroscience at the University of Toronto, said it’s common for people in even relatively advanced stages of Alzheimer’s to call to mind the melodies and lyrics of songs from their past, as well as the autobiographical memories attached to the music.

« They remember quite a bit of music, » he said, adding that someone might say « ‘Yes, this is Duke Ellington’ or ‘This was my favourite music when I went out with my wife.’

« But up to this point, we had no idea what the brain mechanisms are that drive these very long-lasting memories. »

Canadian researchers suggest people with Alzheimer’s listen to familiar songs of the past each day and try to recall the life events the music evokes. (LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

That’s why the researchers are excited about their findings, which were to be presented Wednesday as a « hot topic » at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.

« This is the first study that we’re aware of that has actually studied these kinds of mechanisms and has come up with some ideas why the Alzheimer brain can retain music much longer than other stuff, » said Thaut, who designed the research and analysed the data.

« So I think this is a breakthrough study. »

‘Engage your brain in music’

For Colleen Newell, taking part in the research confirmed something she had long suspected — that her memory problems and difficulty with organization were signs of cognitive impairment.

« That’s one reason I went into the study, » said the 60-year-old guitarist, pianist and songwriter, one of about five professional musicians included in the research. « Not only did I recognize I was dropping [forgetting] nouns, but that my mother has Alzheimer’s.

« She’s 80, and she was having similar memory issues at my age. So I wanted to have a baseline to see what was going on. »

As part of the research, subjects were asked to listen to their playlist for an hour a day for three weeks, while trying to recollect associated life events and discussing them with family members or caregivers. They were then cognitively tested and also had their brains scanned again.

« What we found was there was improvement in brain functional connectivity, changes in brain activation and also improvements in memory scores, which told us that by exposing the brain repeatedly to this familiar music, people were actually improving cognitively and there was evidence that their brain was also changing, » said Fischer.

Connectivity is a measure of information flow between different brain regions, an important component of neurological function; enhanced connectivity and the other changes suggest that repeatedly listening to familiar music may give the Alzheimer-affected brain a cognitive boost, said Thaut, calling the results « stunning. »

« So I think we’re sitting on something extremely important. »

Fisher said these are preliminary results that need to be replicated in a much larger study, and future research also needs to determine if the beneficial effects of routinely listening to familiar music persist or are transient.

Still, the researchers hope their findings may offer the basis for a targeted form of music therapy, with a goal of potentially slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and possibly other types of dementia — none of which has an effective pharmaceutical treatment or cure.

« Alzheimer’s disease at this point is non-reversible, » said Thaut, who suggests people with the condition could mimic the study protocol on their own, by listening to familiar songs of the past each day and recalling the life events the music evokes.

« We cannot say you will be healthy, » he said. « But we can say if you engage in that kind of exercise with your family, your friends, with the caregiver, your spouse, even to go to concerts, just engage your brain in music, from the data we have there will be some cognitive benefit. »

While the research found that non-musicians seemed to make more cognitive gains than those who routinely play instruments, Newell said she hopes continuing the study protocol on her own « will bump me up to keep me going. »

« And also it encourages me to listen, just to listen to music, » said Newell, a worship leader at a Toronto Anglican church, whose role includes spiritually based music. « I guess just incorporating it more into my daily life. »

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