Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors
Alcohol consumers are spread out globally with the leading consumers being Americans.
In 2018, alcohol worth $253 billion was sold in the US representing a 5.1% increase in consumption compared to 2017. In 2014, alcohol sales were approximately $225 billion.
Coincidentally, 15 million Americans aged 18 and above reported having alcohol-related problems during the same period.
It’s accurate to conclude that the ever-increasing alcohol consumption rate in the US is responsible for increasing cases of alcoholism.
Although these statistics are already shocking, experts claim that there is a high number of people who don’t report alcohol-related health problems.
There is a more shocking trend that indicates that 10 to 15% of Americans start to drink heavily when they become older, something which has seen a sharp increase in the number of seniors suffering from alcoholism.
By 2050, the number of seniors who will be alcoholics is expected to rise to 80 million.
Gone are the days where alcohol abuse was associated with college students and Spring Break holidays.
When we go deeper into the problem, seniors who are widowers (75 years and above) tend to be the worst hit. However, most alcohol-related problems among seniors tend to be misdiagnosed or overlooked.
What’s more shocking is; 11% of hospital admissions involving seniors are because of drugs and alcohol according to the NCADD (National Council on Alcohol & Drug Dependence).
The number of seniors rushed to the hospital because of alcohol, and drug-related issues match the number of seniors admitted because of heart ailments. The number of seniors in psychiatric wards because of alcohol and drugs is higher at 20%.
Seniors with alcohol-related problems tend to exhibit warning signs such as anxiety, mood swings, and insomnia.
Since substance abuse screening isn’t part of the regular medical examinations that seniors go through, early signs of alcoholism are hard to detect.
Furthermore, it is harder for seniors to be diagnosed with alcoholism than younger people. Alcoholism among seniors has even been described as an invisible epidemic in the past. Let’s discuss the “root” cause of the problem.
What causes alcohol abuse among seniors?
Seniors tend to abuse alcohol because of many reasons. The first and most common is the loss of friendships/relationships because of death, health complications, or deteriorating health.
The empty nest syndrome is also linked to alcoholism. When the children of seniors grow up, move out and start their own families, this can weaken family relationships resulting in a lot of boredom.
Retirement can also be boring, especially if someone was used to socializing daily.
Boredom, coupled with the loss of friendships and disposable income paves the way for substance abuse among other destructive habits. Traumatic events later in life, such as the death of a spouse can also trigger alcohol abuse in seniors.
Elderly individuals can also be susceptible to abusing alcohol when their health starts to deteriorate, and they become hopeless. Financial difficulties may also contribute to the problem.
Since alcohol acts as a depressant, many elderly individuals tend to abuse the drug to deal with the eventualities associated with ageing. Alcohol is usually a drug of choice among seniors since it increases the number of endorphins released by the brain, which, in turn, increases feelings of happiness and pleasure.
Common risk factors
Although many factors increase the likelihood of seniors abusing alcohol, as seen above, there are some main risk factors.
A. Excessive consumption of alcohol
Seniors who have habitually abused alcohol their entire life or during a large part of their life is more susceptible to alcoholism. Chronic drinkers who happen to be seniors account for 66% of individuals who become alcoholics. The problem usually starts early in life and persists unnoticed throughout the individual’s senior years before transforming into addiction. In rare cases, the individual may become sober early in life before relapsing when they grow old.
Women are more susceptible to alcoholism than their male counterparts during their senior years. Many studies have attempted to understand the reasons behind this strange shift in alcohol abuse trends.
Binge drinking in women has been on the rise. In short time spans, women tend to consume more alcohol than men. In 2005 – 2006 alone, there was a 44% increase in binge drinking among older women.
C. Chronic ailments
Health problems tend to worsen with age, which explains why chronic health conditions are a contributor to alcohol dependency among the elderly. As the number of sick seniors increases with age, most tend to turn to alcohol to cope which is counterproductive. Common chronic conditions pushing seniors to alcoholism include; cancer, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Another force behind alcohol and substance abuse among the elderly is solitude. Most seniors live independently. Less than 5% are in nursing homes or under any special care. Most feel isolated and turn to alcohol or drugs for solace. What’s interesting is; assisted living isn’t as effective as we may imagine since the elderly want care from family members, which in most cases isn’t possible.
Why is alcohol abuse among seniors a serious problem?
Ageing lowers a person’s tolerance to alcohol. As you grow old, you will notice that you get drunk faster drinking the same quantity of alcohol you used to drink when you were young.
Since the effects of drinking are faster among the elderly, the risk of car accidents, accidental falls, among other eventualities related to drinking is higher.
Metabolism tends to decrease with age. Although there may be slight differences in metabolism as you age, behavioural implications of drinking are different among different age groups.
In case you are interested in discovering physiological reasons why seniors are more sensitive to alcohol, here’s what you need to know.
Seniors have less muscle
Alcohol finds its way into the bloodstream via the stomach and is absorbed faster into muscle than into fat.
We lose muscle with age, and in most cases, it gets replaced by fat. Therefore, the effects of drinking alcohol are bound to be stronger if you have more body fat. This explains why seniors find the effects of alcohol stronger and prolonged.
They also tend to have a higher BAC (blood alcohol concentration) level since alcohol gets cleared slowly from their bloodstream.
Decreased body water composition
The body is 70% water when you are young. Between 20 and 80 years old, the percentage drops gradually to 55%, reducing the amount of water
retained for kidney function. This explains why seniors get dehydrated faster than young people. Since alcohol causes dehydration, a combination of low body water and alcohol is lethal to seniors.
Longer alcohol absorption times
When you are young and vibrant, alcohol is absorbed and eliminated from your system very fast.
For seniors, the process is longer, which poses serious risks to vital organs. It also interferes with how the medication works increasing risks of serious reactions/side effects. This explains why seniors who are under medication need to stay away from alcohol.
Increased health risks
Alcohol has been associated with many health issues, especially when you are ageing. We’ve summarized the risks alcohol poses to many health problems common among seniors or the risks bound to develop with age.
Drinking has been linked to immediate, short-term, and long-term effects on blood pressure levels.
Taking 2-3 glasses of alcohol can increase blood pressure levels resulting in ailments like stroke, heart attack, and blurred vision, which are all lethal health conditions, especially among seniors.
When alcohol is taken steadily over a prolonged time, it increases blood pressure levels even over periods where you aren’t drinking.
The effects of rising blood pressure levels include; kidney failure, stroke, decreased libido, and heart failure.
High blood pressure can destroy the arteries that take blood to the kidney causing kidney failure. High blood pressure can also strain, block, or damage blood vessels that take blood to the heart, causing strokes and heart attacks.
Erectile dysfunction and decreased sexual libido are also linked to high blood pressure in men and women, respectively.
Alcohol can also increase blood pressure to levels of causing heart failure. When the heart works overtime to maintain blood pressure, the end result is usually heart failure.
Alcohol can also make wounds and cuts heal slower, a condition commonly associated with seniors who have type 2 diabetes.
In fact, heavy drinking has been linked to the onset of type 2 diabetes by altering glucose tolerance as well as insulin resistance. Alcohol actually reduces the body’s sensitivity to insulin.
According to one such study, increased alcohol intake translated to poorer glucose metabolism.
Alcohol slows down organs like the liver from breaking down sugar as the liver focuses on breaking down alcohol.
If this progresses for a prolonged time, it can result in liver damage. High blood glucose levels can also damage other organs in the body.
For instance, the pancreas can also be damaged by alcohol, yet it is responsible for producing the insulin required for breaking down sugar. Alcohol abuse can cause inflammation in the pancreas (a condition known as pancreatitis).
The excess calories consumed as a person drinks alcohol can also lead to obesity, which is linked to type 2 diabetes. This explains why individuals with high waist sizes are more likely to have diabetes.
Alcohol can also result in low bone mass (Osteoporosis).
This disease causes gradual weakening of bones. It is very common in the US, with over 50 million sufferers according to statistics from the NIH (National Institute of Health).
Osteoporosis is particularly dangerous among seniors since they already have weaker bones.
The disease translates to more hospital visits and longer healing times. This can, in turn, increase mortality rates among seniors. Excessive alcohol consumption lowers calcium levels in the body, yet calcium is critical for maintaining strong bones.
Alcohol can also alter hormonal levels in men and women. Hormones like testosterone and estrogen in men and women respectively play a critical role in making the bones stronger by producing osteoblasts among other bone-supporting cells.
Excessive drinking is also linked to memory problems. Older people who take alcohol tend to suffer memory blackouts or spotty short-term memory faster than in their younger days because they have become increasingly sensitive to alcohol.
As mentioned above, dehydration is another serious alcohol-related problem among seniors. The effects of dehydration among seniors include; kidney problems, brain swelling, seizures, comas, and death in extreme cases.
Medication and alcoholism among seniors
Alcohol consumption is extremely hazardous for seniors, as seen above.
One of the most notable health risks is caused by taking alcohol alongside medication.
Since most seniors are under medication to manage common health problems, and studies show that most seniors are taking alcohol today, the risks associated with alcohol and medicine reactions are real.
For instance, antidepressants, which are common medication among seniors, cause side effects such as drowsiness, nausea, and blurred vision.
When antidepressants are taken alongside alcohol, they worsen these effects, causing problems like dangerous falls, high blood pressure, liver damage, and heart problems.
Many over-the-counter and prescription medication have dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol. Herbal remedies have also been associated with severe side effects.
Here’s a summary of popular medication among seniors that reacts badly with alcohol:
- Aspirin: Most alcohol drinkers take aspirin to deal with the after-effects of alcohol like headaches. Excessive drinking, coupled with taking aspirin as a pain reliever, can cause liver damage and internal bleeding. Aspirin and alcohol strain the liver and stomach.
- Sleeping pills: Aging usually comes with sleeping problems like insomnia. Some seniors claim they drink alcohol to be able to sleep. Since alcohol has effects like drowsiness, it is commonly abused alongside sleeping pills. The side effects of doing this include; diarrhea, confusion and impaired coordination and motor skills. In severe cases, combining sleeping pills and alcohol can lead to death. Alcohol, alongside sleeping pills, has the potential to stop a person’s breathing problems while they are sleeping.
- Cough syrup: Coughing is so common among seniors it is sometimes considered a consequence of ageing. Most seniors take cough syrup, which has some side effects like drowsiness. The syrup is also associated with concentration problems, so it is accurate to conclude that taking alcohol alongside cough syrup will exacerbate such effects.
- Anxiety and depression medication: Aging tends to have serious psychological effects on most people. When you retire, live alone, and your body starts to weaken, such life changes can cause anxiety and depression. This explains why many seniors are on anxiety and depression medication. Alcohol is known to make such medication useless, which in turn, escalates anxiety and depression symptoms among other effects of taking alcohol. Mixing alcohol with anxiety/depression medication can also cause liver damage.
- Acetaminophen: Seniors also take acetaminophen as a pain reliever. The medication works like Aspirin and is sometimes used interchangeably. Acetaminophen like Nyquil and Tylenol can cause kidney and liver problems. When taken alongside alcohol, the medication can cause liver damage if the consumption is habitual.
Common signs of alcoholism in seniors
Family members are usually the first people to notice alcohol problems with a loved one.
Caregivers and friends can also spot harmful drinking patterns. These warnings should not be dismissed or overlooked. If left untreated, excessive drinking can lead to serious physical and mental problems.
Here’s what you should focus on when you want to identify signs of alcoholism in seniors.
The first and most common is increased alcohol consumption.
If they took two beers a day, the number will start rising. They may start showing signs of drunkenness like slurred speech or having a lingering smell of alcohol on their clothes or breath.
If they start drinking after losing a loved one, they could be on the path to alcoholism.
Putting themselves in harm’s way i.e., taking alcohol with medication or driving under the influence is also a serious sign that must be addressed.
If they start hiding alcohol, lying about their alcohol consumption when confronted or becoming irritated when questioned, their chances of suffering from alcoholism are very high.
Signs of alcoholism among the elderly should be taken very seriously. Treatment should be arranged immediately to avoid the health risks discussed above. Seniors who have alcohol problems are best treated in rehabs that cater to their needs.
Alcohol abuse treatment for seniors
Although alcohol abuse has more detrimental effects among seniors than the youth for obvious reasons, however, any person suffering from alcoholism should get help.
Alcoholism is a mental illness that must be treated. The first step should be realization and acceptance.
The subject must come to terms with their destructive behaviour followed by a medical diagnosis after which medication is given. In most cases, seniors with alcohol addiction problems should be admitted to alcohol rehabs for close monitoring.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms among seniors can be fatal because of age-related illnesses and the body’s overall weakness. Some seniors can have a hard time coping with alcohol addiction medication resulting in relapses if they aren’t monitored closely by professionals as they get treatment.
The chances of seniors struggling with alcoholism recovering on their own without professional help are very slim.
Alcohol addiction is a serious mental illness that is harder to treat as you age since alcohol damages the brain and body organs like the liver faster among elderly individuals than young people.
Enrolling your loved one in rehab will help them cope with withdrawals symptoms like tremors, seizures, stomach problems, insomnia, high blood pressure, sweating, anxiety, and severe confusion.
To avoid these life-threatening symptoms, especially among elderly addicts, alcohol consumption is stopped gradually.
Alcohol addiction treatment for seniors usually starts with close monitoring coupled with reduced intake after which consumption is halted completely marking the onset of treatment using medication.
Alcohol rehabs for seniors offer inpatient and outpatient care, although inpatient care is highly recommended for reasons discussed above.
The rehabs also offer treatment that is tailored to the lifestyles and needs of the elderly.
For instance, seniors with mobility problems have the right equipment and support throughout.
Any other special needs ranging from dietary to medical needs are taken care of. This is precisely why it is advisable to take a senior to a rehab specifically meant for the elderly.
Other paths to sobriety
1. Support groups
When searching for alcohol abuse treatment for a loved one who is a senior, the path to recovery has many other treatment options besides rehab treatment. For instance, you can enrol a senior who is a parent, grandparent, or friend to support groups such as alcoholics anonymous specifically meant for the elderly.
In such support groups, seniors who are addicts can share their story and listen to other stories from other seniors they can relate with.
Support groups for alcohol addicts such as Alcoholic Anonymous have professionals known as sponsors or mentors who help addicts deal with their emotions, fears, and temptations.
Therapy is recommendable to anyone who needs it regardless of their age. While most seniors may have reservations about therapy, it helps addicts understand the causes of their addiction, which is an important discovery for treatment and healing.
For instance, a senior alongside their caregiver and family members can discover the actual source of their addiction problem as loneliness or death of a spouse, which is important for treating the problem.
Therapy can help select better-assisted care among other measures that deal with the root cause of alcohol addiction.
Let’s wrap things up
Alcohol addiction is no longer a youth problem. Seniors around the world, especially those in America, are grappling with the problem. Alcohol should be avoided altogether or taken sparingly as a person grows old to avoid the negative effects on the mind and body.
However, it’s not easy to stop taking alcohol, especially if it’s a habit that has lasted decades.
This explains why it’s important for seniors to have a strong support system and the medical help they require. Alcoholism is commonly misdiagnosed among seniors.
Understanding the signs of alcoholism in seniors and seeking treatment immediately can keep your ageing family member or friend from serious health problems. It can also stop a preventable death.