The Hidden Problem of Seniors and Alcohol Abuse

We’re heading into what, for some, is the most wonderful time of the year; for others, though, it can be the most stressful, or even the loneliest. It’s also the time of year when some people will be enjoying a few drinks with friends at dinners and parties, while others will turn to alcohol use as a way to escape, including older adults, who can be just as prone to alcohol abuse as younger people, although we often don’t seem to recognize that this is a problem in our country. So how big of a problem is alcohol abuse among seniors, how do you know if you or your loved one has a problem, and what can you do?

How Big Is the Problem?

It seems like it’s hard for us as a society to acknowledge that older adults – our parents, grandparents, or peers who we grew up with – are just as vulnerable to abusing alcohol as anyone else, but it’s true. In fact, most estimates from earlier than 2020 put the number of seniors battling alcohol abuse at around 3 million, and that number was expected to rise to nearly 6 million after 2020. In addition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says that alcohol abuse affects up to 17% of adults over the age of 60. 

man drinking a glass of wine next to a woman
Research shows that a third of older adults are “situational” drinkers who have turned to alcohol later in life.

To break that down further, and to put it all into stark relief, consider this: a large survey published in 2007 that looked at data from a number of hospitals, found that 24% of people over 65 binge drank, and almost 8% exceeded the NIAAA guideline for seniors that suggest they should have no more than seven alcoholic beverages in a week. Not only that, but another survey found that almost as many seniors are admitted to acute care hospitals for alcohol-related conditions as they are for heart attacks.

It’s also important to point out that, while two-thirds of older adults who are abusing alcohol have been doing so for a very long time, a full third of them are “situational” drinkers who have turned to alcohol later in life, who might turn to drinking because of the life changes that come with aging, like bereavement, illness, disability, and retirement. And, while men in general are more likely to abuse alcohol, it turns out that women are especially vulnerable to developing drinking problems later in life, problems which will often cause physical issues like liver damage, hypertension, anemia, and malnutrition much more quickly (and with less alcohol consumption) than for older men.

Is Alcohol Abuse Worse for Older Adults?

To pick up on our last point above about the physical problems that accompany heavy drinking, we should add that alcohol abuse is especially harmful for people over 60, no matter their gender. Why? Well, first of all, if you’re over 60, you might have noticed that alcohol has a different effect on you now than when you were younger. This is because as we age, our bodies don’t metabolize and excrete alcohol as efficiently, so you’ll find that you get more intoxicated and stay that way for longer. For this reason, the NIAAA recommends that people over 65 consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

So, if you’re more affected by alcohol the older you are, the next concerning thing about drinking too much is its effect on your alertness, judgment, coordination, and reaction time. It can also  contribute to falls and accidents, which can be very serious for older adults. And that’s not all. Heavy drinking can: 

  • Make it harder to diagnose certain conditions: for example, alcohol can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels, dull pain that could be the sign of a heart attack, and even cause symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Interact with many medications, either heightening the effects of them, or reducing their effectiveness. In addition, mixing alcohol with some drugs, like painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or sleeping pills can be very dangerous, or even fatal. 
  • Have serious effects on the brain, central nervous system, liver, heart, kidneys, and stomach.

Recognizing the Signs

So if alcohol abuse is so physically dangerous for older adults, not to mention the fact that it is a sign of mental distress that needs to be addressed, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs that you or a loved one have a problem. That can be difficult to do, because older adults often live more isolated lives than younger adults, but the following signs can help you to determine that it’s time to get help:woman sitting next to man pouring her a glass of wine with her fingers pinching a size

  • Feeling guilty about your drinking
  • Frequently having more than one drink a night
  • Lying about or hiding your drinking
  • Loss of interest in food, or in things you once enjoyed
  • Developing medical, financial, or social problems because of your drinking
  • Drinking to reduce anxiety or depression, forget your problems, or steady your nerves
  • Feeling irritable when you can’t drink
  • Getting annoyed because others criticize your drinking

Remember, some older adults have been living with a drinking problem for much of their adult lives, but others develop an issue later in life because of loneliness, boredom, grief, and the very real stress that can come with aging. If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed with financial problems, loss, chronic pain, taking care of a sick spouse, or anything else, it can be easy to try to drink the feelings that go along with these issues away – but there is help out there if you or a loved one needs help.

What Can You Do? 

If you are concerned about a loved one’s drinking, it’s important to speak to them about it: acknowledge the difficulties they are going through that could have led them to start drinking in the first place, and encourage them to get help in the form of a treatment program or support group. If things are really bad, you should consider staging an intervention with a professional counselor. Hearing your concern and knowing they have your support can be very powerful motivating factors for seniors: in fact, around 90% of individuals who have undergone a professionally staged intervention commit to seeking treatment.

If you are concerned about your own drinking, know that there are countless alcohol-related programs that are designed specifically for seniors, and that it’s never too late to get help. You can look into the following approaches to dealing with alcohol abuse as an older adult: hands grabbing each others wrist forming a circle

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Support groups
  • Individual counseling
  • Medical/psychiatric programs
  • Family therapy
  • Case Management/community-linked services and outreach

Alcohol is a big problem among older adults – probably bigger than a lot of us realize – but the first step to improving lives is recognizing that something needs to be done. So, if you see yourself or a loved one in the signs above, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the NIAAA or a trusted medical professional for ideas on where to start getting help. Remember, no one is ever too old to make improvements to their life and health, and doing that might mean confronting issues with alcohol use. 

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