Alcohol use is on the rise among older adults, and particularly among older women. With the “baby boom” population getting older, and the percentage of Americans over age 65 set to nearly double by 2050, alcoholism in the elderly is an issue that will likely become more and more important.
Yet, despite the growing prevalence of this issue, problem drinking among older people often goes undetected. In fact, some researchers are calling it an “invisible epidemic.”
Below, we’ll explore why one’s drinking may increase during one’s golden years. We’ll also look at the additional risks older drinkers face, and how to know if you or a loved one might be drinking more than is healthy.
What Causes Some People to Drink More Later in Life?
Many causes of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), are the same across age groups—but some factors are especially relevant for older adults.
Many older Americans find themselves somewhat isolated. The reasons for this are many: the loss of a companion or spouse, more limited mobility, fewer scheduled activities, family members living further away, and so forth. This can lead to boredom, stress, sadness, and a range of other difficult emotions that can increase the urge to drink. This might be especially true for those who struggled with alcohol at an earlier time in their lives.
From expensive medical bills to shrinking pensions and insufficient savings, many Americans face significant financial stress during their later years. While not all people respond to financial worries by drinking, anxiety and stress are common motivators for consuming too much alcohol.
Grieving the loss of a loved one can be a major drinking trigger at any age. The older one gets, the more frequent these losses tend to become. The elderly are more likely to be coping with the loss of a partner, sibling, or close friend, and the use of alcohol may provide a distraction.
Many people over the age of 65 deal with some type of chronic pain. Since alcohol can temporarily relieve this discomfort, some seniors may begin drinking more frequently than they intended, as a type of pain management. Unfortunately, this can become a feedback cycle, leading to alcohol dependence.
How Alcohol Affects Older Adults Differently
It’s not just people’s circumstances that change: As the human body ages, it tends to become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Here are some differences you or someone you know might experience when drinking over the age of 65.
Intoxication Happens Faster and Lasts Longer
As people get older, their body composition changes. Older adults tend to have less water in their bodies, and less lean body mass. As one reaches retirement age, one’s metabolism generally slows down as well. All of these factors mean that alcohol will have a stronger effect on a person in their 70s than it would’ve when they were younger.
While it might be nice to spend less money to get the same buzz, older adults might also underestimate the degree to which alcohol will affect them, and how long they will be intoxicated for. And since one’s body is more sensitive overall the older one gets, getting more drunk, more easily can increase the chances of other health complications.
Alcohol Can Worsen Other Common Health Problems
While seniors are far from the only people at risk of serious health issues from overdrinking, alcohol can cause or aggravate a number of illnesses that already disproportionately affect the elderly:
- Diabetes: Excessive alcohol use can worsen diabetes and make it harder to control one’s blood sugar levels. Heavy drinking can also increase your chance of developing diabetes in the first place.
- High Blood Pressure: Drinking too much can also increase the odds of developing hypertension, and put excessive strain on your circulatory system. Since heart disease is already a big issue among older Americans, this can add insult to injury.
- Osteoporosis: Alcohol can negatively impact your bone density, and make it harder for your bones to repair themselves after you are injured This can worsen the risks associated with osteoporosis.
- Memory problems: Excessive drinking can affect your cognition at any age, including short-term memory and problem solving. And there’s increasing evidence that drinking can worsen, or increase the chances of dementia.
On top of all this, intoxication can increase the risk of slip, trips, and falls. If a person is already experiencing reduced bone density or worsened coordination as they age, this can be disastrous. While anyone can take a tumble when they are tipsy, it’s a much bigger deal when you’re older.
Greater Risk of Adverse Medication Interactions
There are many drugs that don’t combine well with alcohol, including common pain medicines like Tylenol and ibuprofen. But as you get older, the number of medications you are taking is likely to increase. It can be hard to keep track of which ones react negatively with alcohol, and how long you need to wait. If a person is experiencing any decline in their short-term memory, this can make drinking on medication even riskier.
Why Alcohol Misuse Among the Elderly Often Goes Undetected
Unfortunately, due to many of the factors above, it’s not always clear when an older person is struggling with alcohol. If a person lives alone, others may not see how much they are drinking. To make matters worse, some of the telltale signs of alcohol abuse might be mistaken for part of the aging process: Issues with memory or focus, fatigue, depression, or self-isolation might be chalked up to the wrong cause.
However, it’s very much possible for a person to develop alcohol dependence in their later years, even if they didn’t struggle when they were younger. If you are concerned about an older loved one, pay careful attention to some of the telltale signs of alcohol use disorder:
Signs of Alcoholism in Seniors
Warning signs that an older loved one is drinking too much may include:
- Making excuses for drinking and showing sensitivity around the topic
- Increased short-term memory loss
- The frequent presence of alcohol in their home
- Withdrawal from interests and social activities
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Anxiety and depression symptoms
Concerned someone you care about is drinking too much? Consider taking our alcohol use quiz.
If someone you love is exhibiting the above symptoms, it can be difficult to approach the issue, but it may be worth checking in with them about their alcohol use. Since many older people begin drinking more to cope with the challenges of aging, your loved one may be receptive to positive, non-judgement support to help solve the problem.
If you’re looking for help with alcohol in your 70s, telemedicine is one strong option. It’s now possible to access everything you need, from coaching sessions to expert medical advice, without ever leaving your home. Programs like Ria Health allow you to get anti-craving medications sent to your door, and track your daily progress through an easy-to-use smartphone app. Best of all, the whole thing is customized to your unique needs, on your schedule.
Curious to learn more? Get in touch with us today.