Alcohol and older adults are not a likely pairing in many people’s minds, but the picture of who uses drugs and alcohol has changed over the years. Graying adults are using these substances just as other generations are, a trend expected to continue as people live longer and grow older.
Older adults, particularly those in the Baby Boomer generation, are drinking beer, wine, and harder liquor in their golden years. As a result, some are battling alcoholism along with other health problems. Data from 2018 show that nearly 1 million adults in the U.S. aged 65 and older live with a substance use disorder (SUD), reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Why Alcohol Is Popular Among Senior Adults
According to a Clinics in Geriatric Medicine report, alcohol remains the most widely abused substance among senior adults age 65 and older, even with increasing rates of illegal and prescription drugs misuse among this age group. Just as is the case with other groups, alcohol, which is legally sold in stores and served in bars and restaurants, is easy to get, and it’s easy to get a lot of it. Alcohol use is so common in our society that very few would think twice about seeing someone buying it, even if the person is older.
Because drinking is socially acceptable, it’s easy to overindulge in it and hide a drinking problem. This is one reason why relatives and friends of older adults are surprised to learn when an older loved one has problems with alcohol. Even “having too much to drink” has been normalized. Because of this, it is easy to miss when things have entered the danger zone for the senior adult who is imbibing too much, especially when the person has been drinking for a long time.
Binge Drinking Is a Problem Among Senior Adults, Too
Not only are older adults aged 65 and older drinking, but they’re also binge drinking, which is dangerous for any age group. As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes, binge drinking is a cause for concern among all age groups. Taking in more alcohol than the body can handle is dangerous. This pattern of heavy drinking raises a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher in a two-hour period. For men, drinking five or more drinks constitutes binge drinking; for women, it’s four or more drinks in this same period.
Per its report, the NIAAA says binge drinking is on the rise among older adults. One study shows that more than 10% of adults in the 65-plus age group reported binge drinking in a one-month period. Of particular concern is how this pattern of drinking can affect a senior who is taking medication that can negatively interact with alcohol. The possibility for alcohol-related injuries, such as falls, also increases for seniors who binge drink.
Alcohol Affects Us Differently As We Get Older
Older adults who drink large amounts of alcohol are at risk for various health problems for many reasons. First, as the body ages, so do its organs, including the brain and liver. Aging organs means changes in how the body breaks down, distributes, and eliminates substances. All of these things make the body more sensitive to alcohol’s toxicity. This means that it is likely that an older person drinking alcohol will become intoxicated faster, even if the amount is small.
It is easy for over-intoxication to occur because alcohol stays in the body longer while the liver works to break it down. An older person who drinks more than one alcoholic beverage because that’s what they’re used to doing may not even realize that their body still hasn’t cleared the first drink yet. Alcohol poisoning is common among people who have too much to drink. If there is more alcohol in the body than the liver can process, a person can lose consciousness and die.
Along with this, seniors with chronic health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, liver damage or liver failure, and dementia, are at risk of worsening these conditions with alcohol use. If they are drinkers who take prescription medications for any of these conditions, they are at increased risk for even more health complications that could send them to the hospital.
Using Alcohol and Medications Together Is Risky
Alcohol abuse among older adults becomes even more of a complex issue when prescription and over-the-counter medications enter the picture. Mixing drugs and alcohol can bring serious consequences, especially when the body’s metabolism has slowed down and substances remain present longer because aging organs don’t work as efficiently as they used to. When this happens, the dosage that was once OK now becomes a deadly poison that could have adverse effects, or worse, mean death.
Older adults are prescribed more medications than any other age group, and per NIDA, more than 80% of patients between the ages of 57 and 85 years old take at least one prescription medication a day. If any of these people drink alcohol while taking their medication, they are at risk of having an adverse reaction that could harm them.
Many seniors who are taking prescription medication for various ailments may not even realize that they’re drinking while their bodies are still breaking down medication. In all, it’s risky to combine these drugs.
Why Alcohol Use Is Up Among Older Adults
The Clinics in Geriatric Medicine report highlights that Baby Boomers’ substance use habits set them apart from earlier generations, which has also put the issues of substance abuse among older adults on the radar. This generation—born between 1946 and 1964—came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when attitudes toward alcohol and drug use were becoming looser and more accepting. Many people in this generation, which first turned 65 in 2011, took their relaxed views toward drinking and drugs into their older years, continuing to use these substances despite their effects on the body and mind.
The National Council on Aging cites the following data, which shows the troubling relationship between alcohol and senior adults:
- Alcohol-related incidents send 11% of older adults to the hospital
- 14% of older adults end up in the emergency room when they go to the hospital for alcohol-related health issues
- 20% is the rate at which senior-age adults enter psychiatric hospitals due to issues drug- and alcohol-related issues
Senior Adult Drinkers Generally Fall into Two Groups
There are two groups of drinkers in the senior adult demographic: There are people who have been drinking before age 65 and those who started drinking later in life. People who have been drinking long before their senior years are estimated to make up two-thirds of the geriatric alcoholic population.
Older adults in the late-onset group, whose members are age 65 and older, typically drink to deal with emotional changes, a practice known as self-medicating. According to UCLA professor Dr. Alison Moore, 10 to 15 percent of people don’t start to drink heavily until their older years, according to an Aging.com report.
Scenarios that commonly trigger later-in-life drinking include:
- Physical health concerns
- Changes in income, financial stress
- Deaths of loved ones including spouses, children, other relatives, friends, pets
- Changes in family structure or responsibilities (such as adult children leaving home or moving far away)
- Mental health conditions, increased depression or anxiety
Alcohol is viewed as a way to find relief for changes such as these. But self-medicating with substances can cause a situation to spiral out of control. A person can develop alcohol addiction and even die from the use of this substance.
Why Addiction Among Older Adults Often Goes Undetected
Identifying the signs of substance dependence and addiction in seniors can be challenging for family members, concerned friends, and even health care professionals. One reason is some of the conditions that occur naturally with aging are similar to those of older people struggling with substance abuse. Some of those are:
- Forgetfulness, losing track of dates, time
- Chronic aches, pains that are unexplained
- Concentration difficulties
- Coordination issues (such as walking unsteadily, falling)
- Unexplained cuts, marks, bruises
- Mood swings, personality changes (sadness, depression, loneliness, irritability)
- Tiredness (noticeable changes in energy levels)
If you notice any of these in an older person, they may be struggling with alcohol abuse. It is worth talking with them and getting them help.
Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction Among Elderly Is Important
Further complicating treating elderly adults for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and related problems is the fact that they are less likely to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. For this reason, some call alcohol abuse the “invisible epidemic,” but that could be changing. Data in recent years show that treatment admissions have increased for older adults with alcohol problems.
BMC Health Services Research says between 2000 and 2012, the proportion attributable to older adults who entered a treatment facility increased from 3.4% to 7% between 2000 and 2012. BMC also says most of those admissions were for alcohol use.
According to the NIAAA, while alcohol problems in older adults often go unrecognized and undertreated, older adults are more likely to look for treatment services from a primary or specialty care provider for an alcohol problem. NIAAA sees this as promising since it is an opportunity to treat issues of alcohol misuse, abuse, and addiction among this population.
Get Help for Alcohol Addiction Today
Elderly adults who have an alcohol addiction can receive help with professional treatment. “We do know that older adults respond at least as well as younger ones to substance abuse therapies. That is why recognizing drug problems in older patients is critical,” writes the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
If you have an older parent, relative, friend, or someone you know needs help, call an accredited facility that specializes in treating substance abuse and addiction and talk with its staff about treatment options and recovery for your loved one.