Alcoholism And The Elderly

Alcohol is a widely-abused substance responsible for claiming the lives of many, including the elderly.

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Alcoholism Statistics In Elderly Populations

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol affects every part of the body; alcohol abuse is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

Alcoholism is progressive. It’s treatable. It’s also potentially fatal.

More than half of the deaths related to alcohol are due to ill health effects from drinking too much over a long period of time; various types of liver disease, heart disease, and cancer can occur this way. Fortunately, members of the elderly population are reported to drink less than their younger counterparts; however, numbers are rising. A SAMHSA study revealed 16.2 million adults 65 and older have struggled with alcoholism, 3.4 million elderly adults engaged in binge drinking, and 772,000 engaged in heavy drinking. Health officials and loved ones of those affected have reason to be concerned.

The binge drinking which occurs in the 3.4 million elderly adults who drink is gender-specific. For women, binge drinking is 4 or more servings of alcohol in a 2-hour time frame. For men, binge drinking is 5 or more servings of alcohol in the same amount of time. Heavy drinking can include drinking 5 or more standard drinks each day; it sometimes overlaps with binge drinking, according to some sources.

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Risk Factors For Elderly Drinking

Due to the challenges that can come in the aging population, like chronic illness and depression, older adults who drink alcohol risk hypertension, heart disease, and other health risks. Furthermore, the challenges endured by individuals older in age, such as isolation, the body changing, changes in mood and cognition, feelings of frustration in the aging process, the loss of a loved one, side effects of some medications that cause depression, and other factors, can cause difficult emotions. As a result, alcohol can seem like a quick fix to manage emotions; the more someone drinks, the more likely they might be to develop a tolerance and possibly an alcohol use disorder.

Lastly, elderly who have had a past problem with chronic drinking often have an addiction to other chemicals. Older women are much more at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, specifically with binge drinking. In early 2000s, there was a 44% increase in elderly women who binge drank.

Elderly Drinking And Health-Related Challenges

Since the aging body responds differently to harmful chemicals, the aging population can develop alcohol use disorders or struggle with intoxication faster than younger age groups. Continued drinking, especially at this age range, produces increased blood alcohol concentrations and, due to physical changes in the body, faster alcohol metabolism. Long-term drinking can change the brain’s composition. When consumed in low amounts and socially, it may not be extremely harmful; however, long-term and consistent drinking at an older age can deteriorate brain function. The US National Institutes of Health say excessive drinking in the elderly community could “increase the risk of cognitive dementia and dysfunction.”

Secondly, there is the pull of the addictive properties of alcohol. When drinking occurs, it can become habit-forming depending on the frequency or motives behind drinking. The more someone drinks, the more they develop a comfortable tolerance with drinking; this can lead to abuse. If an elderly individual already has a diagnosis of depression and chronic pain, drinking can worsen such conditions.

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Signs Of Elderly Drinking

There are many visible signs of elderly drinking that exceed the most common signs of drinking. Some of the most common signs include but are not limited to:

  • Smelling alcohol on breath
  • Spending time in isolation
  • Dehydration
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Lethargy
  • Increased risk of accidental overdose if combined with other drugs
  • Depression
  • Inability to control alcohol use
  • Symptoms of withdrawal

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Side effects like short-term memory loss are especially challenging to combat in older age, as the memory can already be compromised. Additionally, dehydration stemming from alcoholism can cause challenges in the elder community. Dehydration can worsen incontinence or create problems with urination. Drinking too much can also cause financial instability; if members in the elder community are retired, it can cause financial strain.

How Treatment Can Help

Fortunately, attending treatment for an alcohol use disorder older in age can have benefits. It gives the patient access to medication assisted therapies (if needed), detoxification, support groups, and clinical staff. For older individuals feeling alone or struggling with mental health, support meetings and process groups may help them feel connected. Family therapy or one-on-one counseling can help them discover underlying reasons for alcohol use, process feelings, learn healthy coping skills, and improve their quality of life. On-site activities and other methods for treating addiction like detox can also help.

Get Help

Regardless of age, alcoholism is a serious matter than can cause severe health challenges. The way to recover from alcoholism is to seek treatment. If you’re overwhelmed with where to start, help is out there. Fortunately, some facilities offer financial plans. Contact a treatment provider today and discover treatment options.



Krystina Murray

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  • Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.

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Dayna Smith-Slade

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  • Dayna Smith Slade is the President and CEO of Substance Abuse Solutions, L.L.C., a unique and innovative substance abuse consulting firm based in Northern Virginia. Her Small, Women, and Minority owned (SWaM) firm is committed to increasing drug and alcohol awareness in the community and decreasing the prevalence and debilitating impact of substance abuse. Dayna is a seasoned counselor with experience in a variety of therapeutic milieus. She is a dynamic public speaker that has been the featured trainer at national conferences and the featured guest on local television and radio talk shows.

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