Drinking can become a problem for anyone at any age. Great Uncle George may have always enjoyed liquor, and his family may not notice that his drinking behavior has gotten out of hand as he has gotten older. Grandma Betty, on the other hand, never used to drink until her husband died. She starting having a drink each night to help her fall asleep, but now no one realizes that she has been having a couple of drinks to get through each day.
These are common cases. It is common for family members, friends, and health care professionals to ignore their concerns about drinking problems in senior citizens. This may be because drinking problems in older people may be mistaken for conditions associated with age. Still, it is important to take note of problem drinking in senior citizens, because the process of aging changes how the body handles alcohol-the same amount of alcohol can have a larger effect as someone ages. Over time, someone whose drinking habits have not changed may start to notice that he or she has a problem.
Facts About Alcohol and Aging
- Research has suggested that, with age, people become more sensitive to alcohol. The same amount of alcohol can have a larger effect on a senior citizen than on a younger person.
- Alcohol use can worsen some medical conditions like high blood pressure, ulcers, and diabetes.
- When mixed with alcohol, many medicines (including prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal remedies) can be dangerous. This is especially concerning for senior citizens, who tend to take more medications than younger adults. If you take any medication, ask your doctor whether it is safe to drink alcohol.
Here are some examples of adverse effects of medications when mixed with alcohol:
- Aspirin can cause stomach and intestinal bleeding. The risk of this happening increases with alcohol use.
- Medicines to control the symptoms of cold and allergies, called antihistamines, often cause drowsiness. When mixed with alcohol, this effect is magnified.
- Using alcohol with large doses of acetaminophen, which is found in many painkillers such as Tylenol, increases the risk of liver damage.
- Certain medicines, such as cough syrup and laxatives, have a high alcohol content in them.
Effects of Alcohol
Drinking even a small amount of alcohol can impair judgment, coordination, and reaction time. These effects may lead to dangerous work and household accidents such as falls and hip fractures. Perhaps more seriously, drinking adds to the risk of car accidents.
Over time, heavy drinking can cause certain types of cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, immune system disorders, and brain damage. Alcohol use can make certain medical problems harder for doctors to locate and treat. For instance, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels, dulling pain that might be a warning sign for a serious medical problem such as a heart attack. Drinking can also cause confusion and forgetfulness in senior citizens, which may be mistaken for signs of Alzheimer’s disease. People with diabetes are also at a higher risk when they drink-alcohol affects blood sugar levels.
People who abuse alcohol may also be increasing their risk of serious conflicts with family, friends, and coworkers. The more someone drinks, the greater the risk of causing trouble at home, at work, with friends, and even with strangers.
How to Know if Someone Has a Drinking Problem
Two patterns of drinking are common: early onset and late onset. In some cases, the person has been a heavy drinker for a long time, like Great Uncle George. Over time, alcohol began to affect his body differently, causing stronger effects with the same amount of alcohol. In other cases, someone like Grandma Betty can start to abuse alcohol later in life. This is sometimes due to major life changes such as shifts in employment, failing health, or the passing of friends and loved ones. These changes can cause loneliness, depression, boredom, and anxiety. Depression in older adults is often linked to alcohol abuse. In the beginning, alcohol can provide relief from stress; over time, however, alcohol causes trouble and bodily harm rather than relaxation.
Drinking regularly is not the same thing as having a drinking problem, and not all people with drinking problems drink alcohol every day. There are some signals that you or a loved one should get help. Consider finding help if you or a loved one:
- Use alcohol to calm down or to reduce worrying or depression.
- Quickly gulp down drinks.
- Often have more than one drink per day. (One drink is equivalent to one 12-once can or bottle of beer or a wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)
- Cover up or lie about drinking habits.
- Hurt yourself or others while drinking.
- Need more alcohol than usual to feel its effects.
- Become irritable, resentful, or unreasonable when sober.
- Develop medical, social, or financial worries caused by drinking.
Studies suggest that problem drinkers of an older age are just as likely to benefit from treatment as are problem drinkers of a younger age. Your doctor can provide advice about your health, drinking, and treatment options. You may also find help at the local health department or social services agencies.
Many treatment options are available. Some have been in use for a long time, such as 12-step programs. Others involve clearing the body of alcohol, also known as detoxification; using prescription medications to prevent a return to drinking once you have stopped; and counseling, both group and individual. Some newer programs help people with drinking problems to learn which emotions or situations trigger the urge to drink, and they teach people to cope without alcohol. Family support is very important, so many programs work with married couples and family members as part of the treatment process.
The effects of alcohol, as well as ways to treat alcoholism, continue to be studied. In the future, the chance for recovery will increase, and the quality of life for problem drinkers will improve.