Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors

Alcohol consumption among older adults in the U.S. has grown steadily over the past couple of decades. Between 2002 and 2006, an average of 2.8 million adults over the age of 50 suffered from substance use disorders, including alcoholism. By 2020, that number is projected to double, totaling roughly 5.7 million seniors.

Drinking problems among those entering their golden years are sometimes overlooked or even misdiagnosed. The symptoms of depression – insomnia, mood swings and anxiety – can mirror the warning signs of alcoholism. Substance abuse screenings are rarely part of annual physical exams, making it more challenging to detect the early signs of a potential drinking problem.

There is sufficient evidence that even brief interventions delivered in medical-related settings can have a positive influence on reducing problem drinking among most older adults. These interventions can include screening for signs of depression in individuals with long-term health problems, engaging the individual in a conversation about the risks of problem drinking, and providing a referral for brief alcohol-related treatment.

Orion Mowbray
(pulled from UGA Today)

The only way to eliminate the risk of developing a dependence on alcohol during your senior years is to quit drinking. There are numerous rehab facilities throughout the country that specialize in senior alcohol abuse. Treatment physicians are able to carefully monitor a patient’s withdrawal symptoms during detox, as well as help them overcome future urges and triggers.

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What Causes Bad Drinking Habits Later In Life?

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to alcoholism in the elderly. As a person ages, they may face major life changes such as solidarity, financial difficulties and deteriorating health.

Several situations that may lead to excessive drinking in older individuals include:

  • Empty nest syndrome (when children grow up and move away)
  • Loss of friendships due to moves, health complications or death
  • Deteriorating health conditions (cardiovascular disease, vision/hearing loss and diabetes)
  • Traumatic events like a spouse’s illness or death
  • Sadness after downsizing a home
  • Boredom from retirement or lack of socialization

Alcohol is a depressant. These substances affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, which are responsible for behavior and emotions. When a person drinks, endorphins are released in the brain that stimulate feelings of pleasure and happiness. A dependency on alcohol can lead to an array of problems down the road that impact not only the elderly, but those around them.

Risk Factors For Alcoholism In The Elderly

Alcoholism can affect a person of any age, ethnicity, faith or background. However, certain factors like chronic drinking, gender and medical history can increase the risk of senior alcohol use.

Chronic drinkers – those who habitually consume an excessive amount of alcohol – make up a large number of seniors who struggle with alcoholism. In fact, roughly two-thirds of older adults who have a drinking problem are chronic drinkers. Chronic drinking can sometimes start in early adulthood and persist throughout an individual’s golden years. Other times, a person may achieve sobriety, but relapse down the road.

As individuals enter their senior years, women are more likely than men to develop dangerous drinking habits. A number of studies are being conducted to determine the cause of this shift in recent trends.

Frequent drinking greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing health complications such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and liver disease. Additionally, a growing number of women are experimenting with binge drinking. This involves consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour time period. Between 2005 and 2006 alone, binging among senior women rose 44%.

Chronic health conditions, which are long-term diseases that worsen over time, can also increase the risk for elderly alcohol dependence. Recent studies suggest that seniors suffering from multiple chronic conditions are roughly five times more likely to have a drinking problem. The most common chronic conditions among seniors include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

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Statistics Of Senior Alcoholism

In the United States, widowers over 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism. Every year, an estimated 6-11% of hospital admissions among seniors are related to alcohol or substance use. Heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking account for nearly 21,000 deaths each year among those ages 65 and older.

Signs Of Alcohol Abuse In Seniors

Family members, caregivers and friends are generally the first people to recognize a loved one’s drinking patterns. Warning signs of alcoholism should never be overlooked or dismissed as nothing to worry about. When left untreated, dangerous alcohol patterns can lead to an array of physical and emotional troubles.

Some common signs of alcohol abuse in seniors include:

  • Drinking as a way to cope with loss or depression.
  • Consuming alcohol with prescription and over-the-counter medications.
  • Becoming agitated or irritable when they’re sober.
  • Exhibiting signs of drunkenness, such as slurred speech and the smell of alcohol on their breath or clothes.
  • Lying about how many drinks they’ve had.
  • Hiding or stashing liquor bottles where they can’t be found.
  • Putting themselves or others in danger due to their drinking habits.

Harmful Effects Of Senior Alcoholism

Alcohol consumption during your golden years can trigger both short- and long-term side effects. As a person gets older, their ability to metabolize alcohol at a normal rate decreases. The longer that alcohol stays in a person’s system, the more damage it can cause. Even the smallest amount of alcohol can have serious consequences.

One of the biggest health risks among seniors is mixing medications and alcohol. Older adults commonly take multiple prescription and over-the-counter drugs each day to manage chronic health conditions. Some medications, however, can produce a negative effect when mixed with alcohol. For example, antidepressants have side effects such as nausea, drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness. When combined with alcohol, these effects are exacerbated and can lead to high blood pressure, dangerous falls, heart problems or liver damage.

The only way to prevent alcohol from damaging your mind and body is to quit drinking entirely. It’s not worth the risk. There are numerous alcoholism resources available to help you learn about the disease and take the necessary steps toward sobriety.

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Treatment Options for Alcoholism in the Elderly

Roughly four out of every five older adults who are treated for substance abuse disorders are struggling with a drinking problem[CG10] . However, more seniors are seeking treatment for alcoholism than ever before.

Patients with late-onset alcoholism generally have greater resources and family support, are more likely to complete treatment and have somewhat better outcomes than patients with early-onset alcoholism.

Pulled from: American Family Physician

Unfortunately, the stigma of alcoholism can prevent many older adults from getting help. If you are concerned about an elderly family member or friend’s drinking, it’s highly beneficial to have a conversation with your loved one about their options.

Interventions conducted with the help of an alcohol counselor can prove extremely successful in many cases. Around 90% of individuals who have undergone a professionally staged intervention commit to seeking treatment. The support from others often motivates a person to quit drinking and work toward sobriety.

The recovery process is different for everyone. The type of recommended program, as well as the length of treatment time, depends on many variables. These can include the severity of an individual’s alcohol dependency, age and current health. Most seniors will need to go through the detox phase first to eliminate alcohol completely from the body. Since this can involve uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, detox should only be done under the care of treatment providers. After detoxing, seniors are able to transition into other types of therapy that focus on maintaining sobriety and preventing future triggers.

Ready to Get Help?

There are countless alcohol-related programs that are designed specifically for seniors. It’s never too late to get help. Make a commitment to be healthy and alcohol-free during your golden years.

Contact a treatment provider today to get more information on your options.

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