Loss of balance, sleeplessness, forgetting things - all can be signs of aging. But sometimes, they can also signal an alcohol problem. According to a recent study, 1 in 10 older adults are "at risk" drinkers. In this age group, even one or two drinks could put someone's health at risk. As we age, our bodies can no longer handle the same amount of alcohol - this is especially true for women - so it takes fewer drinks to become impaired. At-risk drinking also includes anyone taking certain medications or having conditions that can be adversely affected by alcohol.
Older bodies absorb higher levels of alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that people over age 65 limit themselves to no more than one alcoholic drink a day, and not more than two on any occasion. High levels of alcohol in the body can mask or worsen symptoms of stroke, diabetes, memory loss, heart disease, or mood disorders.
Signs of an alcohol problem
Doctors can do screening tests to check for alcohol abuse. Yet, they are less likely to ask older patients about their drinking. Family and friends may also blame age for a person's fuzzy thinking or accidents when alcohol may be the real culprit. Common signs of a possible problem with alcohol in the elderly may include:
- Memory problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Changes in eating
- Sleep loss
- Lapse in personal hygiene
- Falls or unexplained bruises
- Car accidents
- Grouchiness, sadness, depression
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Loss of interest in activities
Keep in mind, though, that these signs could also stem from other problems or conditions.
Complications from alcohol use in the elderly
Alcohol abuse in older adults is dangerous. Drinking can cause fatal falls and hip fractures in the elderly. It can also worsen conditions such as heart failure or interfere with essential medications. In fact, older adults are treated at hospitals for drinking-related problems at the same rate as they are for heart attacks. Over time, heavy drinking can lead to:
- Forgetfulness and confusion
- Anxiety disorder
- Liver damage
- Brain damage
- Immune system disorder
- Some types of cancer
It can also cause changes in the heart and blood vessels that could dull the warning signs of a heart attack.
Risks of drinking when taking medication
Age changes peoples' metabolism. In older adults, alcohol can reduce or heighten the effect of medicines. That's why older adults or their caretakers should keep a list of any medication being taken, along with the dose. This list should be provided to every doctor providing care. There are other hazards in drinking while taking certain medications:
Sedatives. Drinking multiplies the risk of falling. The same goes for some cold and allergy meds that cause sleepiness.
Aspirin. Drinking raises the risk of stomach and intestinal bleeding.
Painkillers. Using alcohol with certain painkillers can raise the risk of liver damage or overdose.
Cough syrups and laxatives. These medications may contain alcohol that can raise blood-alcohol levels even more.
When excess drinking starts to impair thinking, it can also make someone forget to take needed medications or even take an extra dose of it by mistake. Being in a confused state could also lead someone to taking the wrong medication.
Older adults tend to be more open to the idea of treatment than young people are when family members express concerns about their drinking. A substance abuse counselor may help people understand their drinking pattern. Some elders drink to escape loneliness, boredom, or depression. The use of alcohol may increase after retirement or as a result of grief, illness, or money problems.
A counselor can also help people understand how drinking affects their health. Treatment for depression - often linked with drinking in older adults - may be needed to help the drinker take control over the habit. Heavy substance abusers may need inpatient care in a rehab facility. Medication may be used to help with detox or prevent a relapse. If treated as an outpatient, a caregiver should be involved for best results.
Follow-up care is crucial to stay sober. Some studies show that older people do better in support groups and 12-step programs with others their own age. Becoming more active and connected to people also helps older adults with their recovery.
National Institute on Aging. Alcohol use in older people.
Accessed November 22, 2010.
New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
Elderly alcohol and substance abuse. Accessed November 22, 2010.
Offsay J. Treatment of alcohol-related problems in the elderly. Annals
of Long-Term Care. 2007;15(7).
Barnes JA, Moore AA, Xu H, et al. Prevalence and correlates of at-risk
drinking among older adults: the Project SHARE study. Journal of
General Internal Medicine. 2010;25(8):840-846.