seniors and alcohol abuse

Seniors and Alcohol Abuse: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly

For many reasons — some valid and some fundamentally flawed — the public tends to think that alcohol use and abuse is a problem that almost solely affects younger generations.

The media perpetuates this misperception a couple of times yearly by producing harrowing stories of disturbing hazing incidents at universities where students consume alcohol to excess as part of fraternity or sorority initiations.

Tabloid magazines also habitually report on young celebrities who are in and out of rehab facilities or who are arrested for DUIs.
When alcohol abuse occurs in people of any age, it’s a distressing and potentially dangerous situation, especially when it occurs in those that the media avoids talking about—the elderly.

This article covers:

Alcohol Abuse and Decline of Health in Seniors

Despite the lack of information, research clearly suggests that alcohol use is a significant problem in this specific demographic. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), more than 40 percent of older Americans (those 65 or older) drink alcohol on a regular basis.

For some of these older Americans, alcohol consumption has a positive impact on their life and their overall health. For example, research suggests that alcohol consumed in moderation has some positive effects such as:

  1. Delaying incidences of dementia
  2. Improving vascular health
  3. Increasing bone density in those who suffer from osteoporosis

Unfortunately, many seniors don’t define moderation very accurately. Most health organizations define drinking in moderation as consuming less than one 12-oz beer or glass of wine per day.

These recommendations may be even lower for women or others who are dealing with various health problems.

Alcohol Consumption and Drug Interaction in Seniors

Even though moderate amounts of alcohol consumption have some positive benefits, the negative effects of alcohol abuse outweigh any slight health benefits.

When consumption in moderation crosses over to alcohol abuse, the dangers associated with this habit skyrocket. Alcoholism in seniors causes other health risks such as:

  • The body is less able to metabolize alcohol with age.
  • Seniors have a greater risk of having adverse side effects with drugs when over-consuming alcohol.
  • Taking over-the-counter medications, vitamins, or supplements may reduce a senior’s ability to metabolize alcohol.

In other words, even if a person at 50 could easily drink three glasses of wine and feel fine, but this doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to handle the same three glasses of wine at age 70.

In addition to changes in the metabolic process, alcohol may also negatively interact with different medications that people take or affect their ability to process and metabolize alcohol.

Alcohol Abuse and Addictions

In addition to these impacts that alcohol can have on senior health, there is also evidence to suggest that alcoholism goes under-detected and severely under-treated in this segment of the population. The current system for screening and detecting alcohol abuse allows many seniors to slip through the cracks.

Many doctors and medical providers seem reluctant to raise concerns about alcohol consumption either with the patient or with family members. This breeds a cone of silence and shame around the issue and prevents people from getting the help they need.

A study [i] of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported on alcoholism and the elderly. The researchers defined high-risk drinking as five or more drinks for a man and four drinks for a woman. The study found:

  • People over the age of 65 had increased rates of problem drinking of 22% over two periods.
  • Their percentage was higher than any other age group.
  • The study also showed a higher proportion of high-risk drinking at 3.8%.

No studies prove the reasons older adults drink too heavily; however, there are some strong theories including:

  • Depression over the 2008 recession
  • The Silent Generation lived through Prohibition and got used to abstinence
  • People are healthier longer and less frail

Dr. Bridgett Grant, the lead author in the study states that they are seeing a rise in emergency room visits in seniors due to alcohol-related falls. Dr. Grant notes that deaths by cirrhosis of the liver have increased for the first time since the 1960s.

Dr. Grant explains how alcohol affects elderly people differently than when they were younger:

  • Senior’s blood alcohol levels rise higher than a younger person’s
  • Aging bodies have less muscle mass
  • The liver metabolizes alcohol more slowly
  • Aging brains grow more sensitive to alcohol’s sedative properties

Alcohol use shouldn’t be treated as a standalone symptom. Instead, it should be addressed as part of a more comprehensive assessment of someone’s well-being.
Although alcohol can be a healthy part of a senior’s life, it can also play a detrimental role.

Therefore, it is important to carefully look at how seniors are using alcohol and how it impacts their quality of life.