The aging population is not immune to alcohol abuse. For men and women 65 years of age or older, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse considers one drink per day to be the maximum amount for “moderate” alcohol use. So “heavy drinking” is defined as having more than two drinks per day. Estimates show that 2-13% of individuals over the age of 60 suffer from alcoholism (1,2). Factors that make alcohol more problematic for this age group is that impairment can occur with less drinks consumed and many medical problems can be worsened by alcohol (gout , heart failure, hepatitis, etc).
Alcohol use in the elderly predisposes them to falls, decreased judgment and cognition, pneumonia, poor nutrition and can worsen blood pressure issues. In older alcoholics, gastrointestinal disease, GI bleeding and stroke is more common. There is also a strong association with chronic alcohol abuse and head, neck and esophagus cancers. Alcohol also worsens depression which can be prevalent in this age group due to loss and grieving.
Diagnosing alcoholism can be more difficult with the elderly, particularly those that are retired or isolated because their drinking behaviors or negative consequences are not seen as regularly.
So what can you do for your loved one if you are worried about a drinking problem? Families have an important role in the treatment of alcoholism. The following steps were provided by the American Academy of Family Physicians for the role family members can take:
- Seek medical attention for decline in patient's cognition or self-care.
- Corroborate information on recent and lifetime drinking problems.
- Participate if confrontation is needed.
- Provide support during detoxification and chronic treatment
- Assist in coordination with community services at home.
- Make decisions for older alcoholics with impaired cognition who are unable to process information, weigh consequences or communicate decisions.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2009. Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, Substance NSDUH Series H-36, HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434). Rockville, MD.
- Mirand AL, Welte JW. Alcohol consumption among the elderly in a general population, Erie County, New York. Am J Public Health. 1996;86:978–84.