By Cindy Coloma

Your neighbor Alfred pours his third drink of the evening and settles into his recliner while flipping through news channels on the television. Soon, he will fall into a deep sleep for a few hours then wake up, stumble down the hall and fall into bed with his slippers still on. His wife, Freda, says that’s the only way he can get a good night’s sleep.

Grandma Jane dials various family phone numbers saying she’s sure she has mail missing from her mailbox. When she calls you one night, you suspect she’s been drinking. The rest of the family is used to her late phone calls, and most of them chalk it up to getting older and being lonely after losing Grandpa last year. But a few people, including you, wonder if Grandma has an issue with alcohol.

Older man holding wine glassResearch shows that alcohol abuse is on the rise for older Americans. A study conducted by JAMA Psychiatry and published in The New York Times found that the percentage of older adults over age 65 engaging in “high-risk drinking” has risen by 65 percent in the past 10 years.1

What factors are contributing to the rise? Between the original study conducted in 2001 and 2002 and the follow-up study conducted in 2012 and 2013, there was a financial recession in the United States. Although financial stress certainly could contribute to the rise in high-risk drinking, other contributing factors may be linked to demographics. As modern science advances, Americans are living longer, healthier lives. People in their 60s and 70s today are less fragile than that age group has been in previous decades. Also, baby boomers are more tolerant of drinking than the “prohibition generation” that came before them.2

Speculation abounds as to why older Americans may turn to alcohol — loneliness, depression and sometimes even grief. But everyone seems to agree that high-risk drinking at an older age creates unique health challenges when it comes to alcohol abuse.

In the short term, drinking can cause complications with health issues that are already present. When older patients mix alcohol with the medications they take to manage chronic health conditions, the result can be harmful or even deadly. Drinking too much can also lead to serious falls and accidents, which can causeincreased injuries for people whose bones are increasingly fragile as they age.

According to The New York Times, emergency room visits for alcohol-related injuries and falls have increased in recent decades, as have cardiovascular disease, stroke and death from liver cirrhosis.1

According to the National Institute on Aging, drinking too much alcohol over time can lead to cancer, liver damage, brain damage and immune system disorders. It may also worsen chronic health conditions such as ulcers, memory loss, mood disorders, osteoporosis, diabetes and high blood pressure.3

People may not know that with each drink, an older person’s blood alcohol level rises higher than a young person’s. This is because older drinkers have less muscle mass, and their liver metabolizes substances like alcohol more slowly.1

There is good news, however. There are many tools and treatments designed to help older individuals recover from alcohol addiction. Therapy, detoxification and 12-Step programs are available to senior adults who have decided to get sober, and many programs counsel and educate spouses and other family members as part of the treatment process.

For many families trying to help an older loved one overcome their excessive drinking, the challenge is trying to get them to admit they have a problem and agree to seek treatment. Experts recommend approaching the subject delicately. Many times, a combination of education and emotional support is most effective. Long-term engagement and encouragement can help someone decide to quit drinking, and support systems like Alcoholics Anonymous offer specialized support for older individuals.4 Results are hopeful: A study in The American Journal for Geriatric Psychiatry shows older adults are more likely to have success sticking with a treatment plan than younger adults.5

If you are concerned that someone in your life is drinking too much, talk to them. Listen and support them as they try to navigate recovery. Find new hobbies and activities to participate in together. Provide an alcohol-free environment for them whenever possible. They can start a new life in recovery, and with your support, the outcome can be a positive one.


Sources:

1 Span, Paula. “Alcohol Abuse Is Rising Among Older Adults.” The New York Times, September 14, 2017.

2Americans Are Living Longer.” USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Accessed December 15, 2017.

3Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services National Institute on Aging, Accessed December 15, 2017.

4 Jimison, Robert. “Americans over 60 are drinking more, study says.” CNN, April 3, 2017.

5 Oslin, David W., MD, et al. “Alcoholism Treatment Adherence: Older Age Predicts Better Adherence and Drinking Outcomes.” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Accessed December 15, 2017.