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.
One reason this is so troubling is that alcoholism can have a significant impact on your lifespan. A study that examined people with and without alcohol use disorder concluded that life expectancy was 24 to 28 years shorter in alcoholics.
Yet, despite the magnitude and growing prevalence of this issue, problem drinking among older people often goes undetected. In fact, some researchers are calling it an “invisible epidemic.”
In order to address this epidemic, it is important to understand some of the unique issues seniors face as well as the support available to them.
What Causes Some People to Drink More Later in Life?
Many causes of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), are consistent across age groups—but some factors are especially relevant for older adults.
Older Americans can often find themselves feeling isolated. Alcoholism after retirement or in older age can be quite common due to the loss of purpose and connection that can accompany these events. Other factors may include the death of a companion or spouse, more limited mobility, fewer scheduled activities, and family members living further away.
These life changes can lead to boredom, stress, sadness, and a host of other difficult emotions that can increase the urge to drink. This might be especially true for those who struggled with alcohol earlier 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, the associated anxiety and stress are common factors for consuming too much alcohol.
Grieving the loss of a loved one can be a significant drinking trigger at any age. The older one gets, the more frequent these losses tend to become. The elderly are more likely to experience the loss of a partner, sibling, or close friend, and the use of alcohol may be a coping mechanism of choice.
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 often leads to alcohol dependence.
Increased Sensitivity to Alcohol in Seniors
As the human body ages, it tends to become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Intoxication happens faster and lasts longer.
This is because our body composition changes over time. Older adults tend to have less water in their bodies, and less lean body mass. Metabolism generally slows down as well. As a result, alcohol will have a stronger effect on a person in their 70s than it would have when they were younger, increasing the chance of health complications.
Physical and Mental Impacts of Geriatric Alcoholism
While heavy alcohol consumption puts people of all ages at risk, geriatric alcoholism can cause or aggravate illnesses that already disproportionately affect the elderly. Long-term excessive consumption can lead to some types of cancer, liver damage, brain damage, and immune system disorders. Other health risks include:
- Diabetes: Heavy drinking can increase the chance of developing diabetes or worsen existing diabetes as alcohol makes it harder to control blood sugar levels.
- High Blood Pressure: Drinking too much can increase the odds of developing hypertension, and put excessive strain on your circulatory system. Since heart disease is already a serious issue among older adults, heavy drinking can compound the problem.
- Osteoporosis: Alcoholism among seniors can negatively impact bone density, making it harder for bones to repair themselves after an injury. This can increase the risks of fractures and falls.
- 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 increase the chances of dementia.
- Depression: Elderly individuals may turn to alcohol to mask feelings of loneliness or isolation. While drinking temporarily boosts serotonin levels improving one’s mood, long-term heavy drinking does the exact opposite creating a vicious cycle.
Schedule a private call with a Ria Health team member and we can help you get started.
Alcohol and Adverse Medication Interactions
Mixing alcohol and medications is risky business at any age. Many drugs don’t combine well with alcohol, including common pain medicines like Tylenol and ibuprofen. As you get older and take more medications it can be challenging to keep track of those that react negatively with alcohol. And any short-term memory issues can further increase the risk.
Geriatric Alcohol Use Disorder May Go Undetected
There are a couple of reasons that alcoholism in the elderly may go undetected. For one if a person lives alone, others may not see how much they drink. In addition, telltale signs of alcohol abuse might be mistaken for part of the aging process such as issues with memory or focus, fatigue, depression, or self-isolation.
Signs of Alcoholism in Seniors
A person can 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 common signs of alcohol use disorder.
- 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
Stigma of Drinking Among Older Americans
Many seniors consider alcoholism as a moral weakness and will deny there is a problem. They are reluctant to be open with family or their physician about their drinking. Providers may avoid inquiring about alcohol use for fear of offending the older person. As a result, alcohol use disorder in the elderly often remains hidden and untreated.
How to Treat Alcoholism in the Elderly
If someone you love is exhibiting the above symptoms, it can be difficult to approach the issue, but it is essential to do so for their health and safety. Since many older adults begin drinking more to cope with the challenges of aging they may feel defensive about the topic. Your loved one is much more likely to be receptive to support that is positive and non-judgmental.
The good news is there is a great deal of support in your community and online. You don’t have to face the challenge alone.
The National Institute on Aging suggests the following approaches to finding help with alcohol misuse.
- Talk to your doctor about advances in medication that might help you reduce cravings. They may also be able to give you advice about treatment.
- Speak to a qualified counselor who knows about alcohol use disorders in older people. There are options for individual or group therapy to help identify causes and wellness strategies.
- Locate a support group for seniors struggling with alcohol. There are many organizations that offer support and programs for people who want to stop drinking.
- Explore websites or mobile applications that can help you track your alcohol intake and offer positive support as you make progress toward your goals.
Strategies for Cutting Back
As we already mentioned, boredom and isolation are often the root causes of drinking in the senior population. It is essential to develop new habits and routines to stay healthy, active and engaged.
- Start with removing alcohol from your home
- Avoid people and situations that tend to trigger the urge to drink
- Discover new interests and hobbies
- Connect with friends and family regularly
- Volunteer, take a class, or consider a part-time job
- Take a daily walk
- Join a gym or recreation center for fitness and socialization
- Practice healthy habits: Eat nutritious foods, drink plenty of water, get adequate sleep, learn about meditation and stress management techniques
If you’re looking for help with alcohol in your 70s or beyond, telemedicine is an effective and convenient solution. It’s now possible to access everything you need, from coaching sessions to expert medical advice, without ever leaving your home. This revolutionary access to care can especially benefit those who are less mobile as they age.
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 program is customized to your unique needs, on your schedule.
For more information get in touch with us today. Help is just a few clicks away!
Additional Resources and Information for Older Adults with Alcoholism
This article was originally written by Ade Kiseu and was updated by Lisa Keeley in August 2023.