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. This misperception is strongly fueled by breathless media stories that provide heavy coverage of disturbing hazing incidents at universities that are largely fueled by excessive alcohol consumption, and tabloid magazines are full of stories of young celebrities who are in and out of rehab facilities or who are busted for DUIs. But, there is far less coverage of alcohol use and abuse among middle-aged adults. And, this trickle of news absolutely dries up when we look at older adults and alcohol use.
Alcohol Abuse and Decline of Health in Seniors
However, 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 — in moderation — can stave off dementia, improve vascular health, and increase bone density in those who suffer from osteoporosis. But, moderation means moderation. Most health organizations define drinking in moderation to be less than one 12-oz beer or glass of wine per day. These recommendations may be even lower for women or for those who are dealing with various health problems.
Alcohol Consumption and Drug Interaction in Seniors
Even though the information above would seem to suggest that alcohol and senior health are positively related, this is not necessarily true. When consumption in moderation crosses over to seniors and alcohol abuse, the dangers associated with this consumption will skyrocket. The danger is caused by numerous different things. For example, research shows that the body is less able to effectively metabolize alcohol as people age. In other words, even if a person at 50 could easily drink three glasses of wine and feel fine, this does not mean that they will be able to handle the three glasses of wine at 70. In addition to changes in the metabolic process, alcohol may also negatively interact with different medications that people take. Since older Americans, on average, take more prescription medication than their younger counterparts, there is a greater risk of adverse side effects or drug interactions. And, it is important to remember that it is not only prescription medication that can interact with alcohol. Over-the-counter medication and vitamins and supplements may also negatively impact a person’s 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. At the same time, 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. Furthermore, alcohol use and abuse in seniors is often associated with other medical and psychological issues. Frequently, people may begin to drink more heavily after a troubling medical diagnosis, such as Parkinson’s Disease; and, some people may drink because they are feeling lonely, isolated, or depressed. Therefore, alcohol use cannot 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.