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Alcohol and the Elderly

As a person ages, they are faced with many major life changing events and some of these may lead to excessive drinking and include:

  • Empty nest syndrome
  • Financial difficulties
  • Deteriorating health
  • Loss of friendships due to moves
  • Health complications or death
  • Deteriorating health conditions (cardiovascular disease, vision/hearing loss and diabetes)
  • Traumatic events, death of a spouse
  • Downsizing to a smaller home
  • Lack of socialization
  • Loneliness
  • Isolation
  • Boredom

A dependency on alcohol can lead to an array of problems down the road that impact not only the elderly, but other people around them.

Risk Factors for Alcoholism in the Elderly

Alcoholism can affect a person of any age.  However, certain factors like chronic drinking, gender and medical history can increase that risk.  Chronic drinking can sometimes start in early adulthood and persist throughout an individual’s golden years.  Other times, a person may achieve sobriety, but relapse down the road.

Frequent drinking greatly increases a senior’s risk of developing health complications such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and liver disease.  Recent studies suggest that seniors suffering from multiple chronic conditions are roughly five times more likely to have a drinking problem. The most common chronic conditions among seniors include type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

The body’s ability to process alcohol declines with age.  As body water retention declines it reduces the amount of blood in the body, and therefore only a small amount of alcohol can have a big effect.  Some research has shown that as people age they become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects.  Some medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, ulcers, and diabetes, can worsen with alcohol use.

Many medicines, such as prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal remedies—can be dangerous or even deadly when mixed with alcohol. This is especially worrisome for elderly people, because the average person over age 65 takes at least two medicines a day.  Therefore, it is essential that a senior is honest with their doctor when asked how much they drink.

Some medications should never be taken with alcohol so check with your pharmacist. Here are some examples:

  • Aspirin can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines; the risk of bleeding is higher if you take aspirin while drinking alcohol.
  • Cold and allergy medicines (antihistamines) often make people sleepy; when combined with alcohol.
  • Alcohol used with large doses of the pain killer acetaminophen can raise the risk of liver damage.
  • Some medicines, such as cough syrups and laxatives have high alcohol content.

Even small amount of alcohol can impair judgment, coordination, and reaction time. It can increase the risk of work and household accidents, including falls and hip fractures.  It also adds to the risk of car crashes.

Heavy drinking over time also can cause certain cancers, liver cirrhosis, immune system disorders, and brain damage. Alcohol can make some medical concerns hard for doctors to find and treat.  For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack.  Drinking also can make older people forgetful and confused, and they may end up taking more or less of their prescribed medications without even knowing.  For people with diabetes, drinking affects blood sugar levels.

People who abuse alcohol may be putting themselves at risk for serious conflicts with family, friends, and coworkers. The more they drink, the greater the chance of arguments arising with family, friends, and even with strangers. Some seniors don’t socialize as much as they used to, and days may come and go without them seeing or talking with anyone.  This can be serious especially if they have fallen or can’t get to a phone.

Some warning sign that a senior person in your life is drinking too much might be:

  • Decreased reliability
    • Neglect of important tasks
    • Difficulty making decisions
    • Forgetfulness
  • Increasingly moody
    • Slurred speech
    • Slowed and impaired thinking
    • Increased isolation
    • Loss of interest in activities 
    • Driving while intoxicated
    • Unsteadiness walking
    • Falls and accidents
    • Unexplained injuries
    • Declining health
    • Declining personal hygiene
  • Lack of attention to nutrition

Watch out for these as they may save someone’s life.

Johnina Noar – CADC-II
AToN Center  888-535-1516