Alcoholism among the Elderly

Despite the fact that alcoholism among the elderly is rarely discussed when compared to discussion of young adult populations and alcohol abuse, the epidemic nature of this problem has been known for some time. A wide variety of studies dating back to the eighties and nineties confirmed that alcoholism among senior citizens is a significant problem in the United States. However, few specific alcohol rehab centers or other types of treatment programs have been implemented to address this growing group of alcoholics. As a result, many older people continue to drink well into their 60’s, 70’s and even into the 80’s and beyond. Understanding this problem is critical considering the high numbers of baby boomers that are progressively retiring over the next decade.

Despite common public perception to the contrary, alcoholism in elderly people is quite common. However, some addiction experts have pointed out that a more experienced alcoholic may be able to moderate their drinking so that it does not appear problematic, despite the fact that alcoholism may be present. In a 2000 article by Sally K. Rigler, M.D., of the University of Kansas’ School of Medicine, the figures on alcoholism among the elderly are discussed:

“Although alcohol problems are often underreported, alcohol use remains common among older persons. In a study of community-dwelling persons 60 to 94 years of age, 62 percent of the subjects were found to drink alcohol, and heavy drinking was reported in 13 percent of men and 2 percent of women. Overall, about 6 percent of older adults are considered heavy users of alcohol. In this study, heavy drinking is defined as having more than two drinks per day.” (1)

However, the sampling of older adults tested in this study isn’t likely to be completely accurate based on the fact that many elderly people will lie, disguise or otherwise hide their alcohol use for fear of having their freedoms taken away. In fact, the problem could be even far more reaching than researchers have currently envisioned, based on the fact that older people who drink heavily are also closely associated with other types of addiction. In an editorial on the subject directed at a study by Blazer and Wu into the elderly and alcoholism, Sarah Mathews and David W. Olsin write:

“One of the findings of great importance was that alcohol misuse in this population was a marker for other problems, including illicit drug use, tobacco use, and misuse of prescription medications.” (2)

This finding is troubling considering that a percentage of respondents will not answer questions where they fear legal, social, medical or other consequences, and this can be the case with both alcoholism and drug abuse. In many cases older people fear that they will be declared unable to care for themselves and placed in a managed care facility. So while the figures quoted by these and other studies are alarming, the reality is that we don’t have enough information to fully understand the problem.

What we do know is that elderly people are less socially active, have fewer close connections and are often isolated from family and friends. Additionally, the older a person gets, the more likely it is that they will out-live the people they love. This can lead to depression, isolation, introversion, early onset dementia, and self medication with alcohol or drugs. Because the risks of alcoholism or drug addiction are so dangerous for this age group, recognizing the symptoms of alcoholism among elderly people is critical to get help for those who need it. The three primary warning signs of alcoholism are:

  • Inability to Control – Problematic drinking is often characterized by a loss of control of the substance in question. Alcoholics may do things like forget how much they had to drink or when they had their last drink. They might behave outrageously when intoxicated and act out in ways they never would while sober.
  • Obsession – Many people who suffer from alcoholism glorify it without even realizing. They’ll talk about drinking constantly, think about new places to drink and people to drink with, what to drink and how much, discuss memories of previous drinking episodes and so on. Essentially, the obsession part of alcoholism is identified when a person’s entire life revolves around drinking.
  • Undeterred by Consequences – The most powerful sign of alcoholism is continuation despite severe penalties and consequences. Despite what can be irreversible damage to families, careers, relationships, education and public service, alcoholics will continue to drink – even when every aspect of their life is out of control.

However, not everyone exhibits these signs. In fact, many alcoholics have been drinking heavily for years – even decades – and are able to successfully balance most aspects of their lives. Some people refer to these types of people as “Professional Alcoholics.” This phenomenon may contribute to the general public perception that alcoholism is not a significant problem among the elderly. This issue is discussed at length by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

“Several theories have attempted to explain why the elderly appear to drink less alcohol (Gomberg 1982): (1) Older persons often have smaller incomes and less discretionary money to spend on alcohol. (2) Even though they can metabolize alcohol as efficiently as younger persons, older persons experience higher levels of peak alcohol concentrations for similar doses because with age a person loses lean body mass in which to distribute water-soluble alcohol (Vestal et al. 1977). Thus older persons can experience effects of alcohol while imbibing less. (3) There is also evidence that, for any given level of blood alcohol, there remains an intensified sensitivity to alcohol in older persons (Vogel-Sprott & Barrett 1984). (4) Serious medical problems are more prevalent in the older population, which may cause older persons to reduce their alcohol consumption. (5) Finally, because alcohol abuse is a major cause of mortality, early mortality among lifelong alcohol abusers may leave a surviving older population who consume less alcohol and have fewer associated problems.” (3)

Combine the obscurity of the problem with the fact that the risks associated with alcoholism are more severe for senior citizens than younger demographics, and it’s obvious that this is a serious national public health issue. In fact, a number of studies have resulted in evidence that suggests that cognitive function may be degraded in elderly people who drink heavily:

“A study of drinking among the elderly in Brazil has found that heavy alcohol use is associated with more memory and cognitive problems than mild-to-moderate alcohol use, especially among women.” (4)

Because these risks are so severe, you must take steps to get immediate help if someone you love is suffering from alcoholism. Call the number at the top of your screen now to speak to an expert at one of the country’s most successful alcohol rehab centers. The call is free and completely confidential, so you have nothing to lose…and you just might save a life.

(1) Sally K. Rigler, M.D Alcoholism in the Elderly University of Kansas School of Medicine, Kansas City, Kansas American Family Physician. 2000 Mar 15;61(6):1710-1716.
(2) Sarah Mathews; David W. Oslin Alcohol Misuse Among the Elderly: An Opportunity for Prevention Am J Psychiatry 2009;166:1093-1095. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09081183 October 01, 2009
(3) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Alcohol and Aging
(4) Science Daily Alcohol Use and Cognitive Decline Among the Elderly Jan. 27, 2010

About The Contributor

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers

The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More

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