Alcohol and Older Adults: Stay Aware and Healthy

by Diane E. Russo, MS, CASAC

Alcohol has been around since the Neolithic Age. It has outlived dinosaurs, travelled the seven seas, and continues to provide those who overly indulge with pain, confusion, disorder, and sometimes tragedy. While we tend to focus on the effects of alcohol on our younger generation, there is a growing alcohol issue with our senior population. Alcoholism is a rising problem as baby boomers are facing life-altering events such as retirement, losing a loved one, or losing one’s life purpose. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking among seniors age 50 and older is rapidly increasing. In fact, drinking within this population has been growing the most!  Among seniors age 60 and older, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently reported that approximately 17% are abusers of alcohol and drugs, and this number is expected to double by 2020.

While alcohol abuse is a problem that is often hidden in our older population, it poses health and safety risks for many, and is a serious concern for families. Older adults abusing alcohol may be more likely to have accidents due to impaired balance–including falls, which can result in hip or arm fractures–as well as car crashes due to impaired judgment, coordination, and reaction time. Too much alcohol can also lead to many health issues, including some types of cancer and liver damage. It may also worsen existing conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Physiologically, women are at a greater risk for alcohol-related problems as they age as females have a diminishing ability to metabolize alcohol due to lean body mass. They are also more likely to outlive their spouses and experience losses that may bring loneliness and depression, which may lead them to drink.

If you are a senior and you are reading this, know that drinking is up to you as an individual. Seniors usually have more time on their hands, and reducing stress and socializing with “moderate” drinking may not seem like a bad idea. There are very real issues and difficulties that can accompany aging: failing health, limited mobility, financial hardships, caring for an ailing spouse. You may have a drinking problem already and it is becoming worse over the years. If you are experiencing boredom or a sense of uncertainty, you may drink more than you normally would. Maybe you are suffering from stress or depression. Or maybe you are drinking because you are suffering from loneliness after your children moved away, or experiencing loss due to the death of a spouse or a friend. It is natural to feel lonely under these circumstances, and these are situations that may lead some people to turn to alcohol for comfort.

The good news is that there is help available. Seniors who seek help for a drinking problem have a good chance for recovery because they are likely to stick with treatment programs, especially when the programs are geared specifically to seniors’ needs. Family members or friends of a senior with a drinking problem can assist by acknowledging the problem and helping the person find treatment. There are many resources available in our community, including support groups and mobile senior services.

The senior years should be a fulfilling time of enjoying friends and family. We know that there are health and lifestyle changes that come with aging; however, there is no reason that alcohol abuse should interfere with this valuable time in one’s life. If you or a loved one need help, reach out and seek the assistance you need.