Alcohol use can become a problem for seniors as they age, even if they never had an issue with alcohol consumption earlier in life. This phenomenon, called late-onset alcoholism, is caused by both the physical factors of the maturing body as well as the emotional toll that aging can take. It’s estimated that 80,000 of the nation’s approximately 8 million alcoholics are seniors, and about 40% of those developed their problem after age 60. The label ‘alcoholic’ may seem harsh to describe someone who appears to simply enjoy a daily drink, but caregivers who notice that the daily drink has become a ritual, or who find alcohol hidden in unusual places, among other signs, are in fact seeing signs of alcoholism. A problem, for a senior, is defined as more than seven drinks in a week. Family caregivers and homecare companions alike need to know the signs and symptoms of excessive alcohol use in seniors, because the effects can mask other significant health issues that need to be addressed.
People who have had a healthy relationship with alcohol all their lives can find themselves in trouble as they enter their senior years through no fault of their own, for a combination of physical and emotional reasons. First, the way the body handles alcohol changes with age , becoming more sensitive to the amount ingested than before. The older body metabolizes alcohol more slowly than a younger body, and also has a lower percentage of water, so that an older person’s blood-alcohol level stays higher, longer. A woman who could have two drinks a night in her thirties without a problem will become tipsy faster on two drinks, and stay drunk longer, when she’s in her sixties. And the reasons for drinking change with age, as celebration and socializing give way to more somber causes like job loss, bereavement and depression. More seriously, changes in health and lifestyle often mean that seniors are drinking at home, alone, instead of in public in the company of friends, which can lead to alcohol abuse for the simple reason that no one else sees what’s happening. Worse, while women are five times more likely to become alcoholics than men in general, they are also more likely to suffer from late-onset alcoholism, and are even less able to metabolize alcohol well as seniors.
In addition to the usual negative effects of alcoholism, senior alcohol abuse can have other problematic consequences. Doctors can assume that symptoms of alcoholism like falling, memory lapses, failing appetite, sleep issues, and depression are simply natural signs of aging, and not remarkable. So a serious problem that is treatable goes undiagnosed and unaddressed. And in women in particular, the serious, late-stage complications of alcoholism such as anemia, liver damage, malnutrition and hypertension develop faster and with lower levels of alcohol consumption than in men.
Excessive alcohol use can cause problems for drinkers of all ages, of course, but there are issues for seniors in particular:
- Alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels, which may dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack.
- Alcohol increases the risk of accidents or falling down
- Alcohol negatively interacts with many if not most prescription medications
In fact, there are dozens of medications that negatively interact with alcohol. These are just a few examples:
- Aspirin or arthritis medications plus alcohol increases the risk of bleeding in the stomach.
- Acetaminophen plus alcohol increases the chances of liver damage.
- Alcohol plus many medications for common conditions can make them worse, not better. These include: heart failure, high blood pressure, ulcers, diabetes, and gout
- Alcohol plus some sleeping pills, pain medication, or anti-anxiety/anti-depression pills can be deadly
Just to be safe, alcohol should be avoided for at least several hours after taking any medication, because it takes that long for medication to process through the body.
If you are a caregiver who suspects that your loved one may have an issue with alcohol use, there are many resources available to you. We’ve included a partial list below. Late-onset alcoholism is treatable, and treatment can improve quality of life for your loved one while improving their overall health once the obscuring issues of alcohol use are removed.
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
For families of alcoholics