Alcohol Use Amongst Older People

Posted by Anne Reynolds on Nov 15, 2016

In Healthy Living


There is a hidden epidemic amongst American seniors that they and their families are largely reluctant to address: Alcohol abuse.  The fact is that anyone at any age can develop a problem with alcohol and as depression, loneliness and isolation, all problems regularly experienced by seniors living alone, are common triggers for the development of alcoholism, the condition is becoming increasingly common amongst seniors that are aged over 65.

When seniors are living alone without anyone to take regular note of how much alcohol they are consuming, many families, friends, and even medical professionals and healthcare workers often overlook their concerns about older people drinking. Problems with balance and memory (common amongst alcoholics) are often attributed to other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, when they appear in seniors, when in reality it could be that these are signs of excessive alcohol consumption.  The over 65 population is currently the fastest growing population in the United States, with 40.3 million people over the age of 65 currently recorded as living in the country. Among seniors living in the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has recently reported that about 17% are abusers of either alcohol or drugs (largely alcohol) and this number is expected to double by 2020. Clearly alcohol abuse poses a very real problem for our elderly population, and one that is under-addressed.

Alcohol and Medications

Whilst excessive alcohol consumption can be problematic at any age, it is of particular concern amongst seniors who are more likely to regularly take other prescription and other the counter medications than any other age group. Almost all of these medications will specify explicitly that they are not consumed in conjunction with alcohol, as they can cause reactions that can be both dangerous and lead to adverse side effects. One example of this is that common aspirin is used in conjunction with alcohol then it can lead to increased risk of intestinal bleeding. Another example is that alcohol used in conjunction with cold and allergy medications can make you feel very sleepy, increasing your likelihood of having a trip, fall, or other accident. The combination of excessive alcohol consumption and medication can be particularly dangerous for individuals who are taking sleeping tablets or anti-depressants, as combining these medications with alcohol could lead to an increased risk of premature death. It is clear, then, that those with alcohol use disorders who also regularly take medication are putting their health at increased risk.

Seniors in general are at an increased risk of sustaining injury as a result of a trip or fall, due to common problems with balance and increasingly frail and brittle bones. Alcohol consumption will only exacerbate that risk, meaning that seniors who drink excessive amounts of alcohol increase their likelihood of sustaining an injury that will reduce their independence and could ultimately affect their ability to live alone.

Everything in Moderation                     

This doesn’t mean that all seniors have an alcohol problem, and of course grandpa shouldn’t be discouraged from having a glass of wine or two at his grandson’s wedding. Everything can be enjoyed in moderation, and there is no set amount of alcohol that you can consume before you are have a problem with disordered drinking: alcohol use disorders are diagnosed based on the psychological relationship you have with alcohol, rather than the amount of alcohol that you consume. If you become aware that a senior friend or family member is drinking on a daily basis, drinking alone, or feels irritable and angry when they cannot or do not have access to alcohol then you may wish to discuss the problem with them and take the first steps towards getting them some help and support. Loneliness and isolation is a very real problem amongst seniors, and removing this social disconnect  can be key in helping to reduce problem drinking: assisted living facilities provide great social networks for their residents, enabling seniors to reach out to those with similar interests and enjoy regular conversation and company. Whilst many seniors are reluctant to live in a care home environment, the reality is often enhanced health and enhanced social interaction, leading to an improved quality of life.


Post Written by Anne Reynolds