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Senior Adults and Alcohol Abuse

By Patti Richards

Alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, is no longer a disease of the young. According to NPR, a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that more Americans drink alcohol to the point of danger than ever before. Older adults were one of three groups identified as having the highest spikes in problem drinking, with alcohol abuse and dependence nearly doubling between 2003 and 2013 in those over age 65.1 Experts aren’t completely sure what is behind this rise in alcohol dependence among older adults, but many feel it has to do with changes in society’s view on alcohol consumption and a senior’s stage of life.

Elderly man drinking wine

For example, many senior adults who were alive during the Prohibition era see society’s growing acceptance of alcohol consumption as a reason to change their behavior. The occasional (or regular) use of alcohol is no longer the social taboo it was at an earlier time in their life. This gives senior adults a newfound sense of freedom when it comes to consuming alcohol in front of their children and grandchildren.

In their later years, senior adults may also feel a sense of freedom from earlier constraints, and adult children may choose to “look the other way” rather than confront them about what has become a problem. Adult children of aging parents may also be unaware of available treatment programs for their parents, since the possibility of addiction treatment isn’t considered a “normal” part of the aging process. In any case, this new research shows that alcoholism in those over 65 is quickly becoming a public health problem.2

Senior Alcohol Challenges

Most senior adults deal with at least a few health issues as they age, which is why one of the biggest challenges with senior alcohol use is the interaction the substance has with other prescription medications. “Alcohol interferes or interacts with literally hundreds of prescription medications,” said addiction psychologist Dr. David Oslin in a recent New York Times article. “That medication is in your system 24/7. Drinking can render it less effective, or even dangerous.”3

Some health conditions, like hypertension, diabetes and ulcers, can be made worse by drinking alcohol. And when alcohol interferes with the medications prescribed to treat these conditions, the results can be deadly. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism lists these additional conditions that can be exacerbated by alcohol abuse in senior adults:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Liver problems
  • Osteoporosis
  • Memory problems
  • Mood disorders 4

Medications commonly used to treat health conditions in senior adults that interact with alcohol include the following:

  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Cold and allergy medicine
  • Cough syrup
  • Sleeping pills
  • Pain medication
  • Anxiety or depression medicine 4

Alcohol consumption can also make it difficult for doctors to diagnose and treat certain conditions in older adults. For example, alcohol causes changes in blood vessels that can dull the pain that signals a heart attack. It can also lead to memory problems that are often mistaken for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.5

Senior Alcoholism

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that there are more than 2.5 million older adults in the United States with a drinking or drug problem.6 Six to 11 percent of senior hospital admissions, 14 percent of emergency room admissions and 20 percent of psychiatric hospital admissions involve alcohol or drugs; and widowers over the age of 75 currently have the highest rates of alcoholism of any group in America.6

Although there’s no clear answer as to why senior alcohol abuse disorder is increasing at an alarming rate, healthcare professionals attribute the trend to a number of factors. Some of these include:

  • The decrease in number of close friends due to placement in a nursing home, moving to be near children or death
  • Retirement or the need to give up a job due to advancing age
  • The absence of children or other close relatives
  • Selling the family home and moving to a smaller place
  • The death of a spouse
  • Failing health

Any one of these situations can cause discouragement and depression in seniors, and most deal with more than one significant life change at a time. Looking for ways to cope with the loneliness these changes bring too often finds seniors turning to alcohol.

Signs and Symptoms

Although alcohol abuse symptoms in senior adults are similar to those in younger people, there are signals that a problem exists that are unique to this age group. If you suspect your friend, spouse, parent, grandparent or other senior loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, look for the following:

  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Drinking before, with and/or after dinner
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or other once-loved activities
  • Drinking even when warned about dangerous drug/alcohol interactions
  • Frequent use of tranquilizers and alcohol
  • Slurred speech, alcohol breath and changes in personal appearance
  • Empty liquor or beer bottles
  • Mood swings, particularly hostility and depression
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion6

Alcohol Treatment for Senior Adults

Alcoholism in senior adults creates unique issues for caregivers and family members. The good news is that treatment programs designed specifically for this age group are available and effective. Many facilities have geriatric units where the needs of senior adults in recovery can be met. If your senior adult loved one struggles with alcohol use disorder, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.

1 Domonoske, Camila. “Drinking On The Rise In U.S., Especially For Women, Minorities, Older Adults.” NPR, NPR, 10 Aug. 2017.

2 Jimison, Robert. “Americans over 60 are drinking more, study says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 Apr. 2017.

3 Span, Paula. “Alcohol Abuse Is Rising Among Older Adults.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2017.

4Older Adults.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 28 Oct. 2017.

5Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 28 Oct. 2017.

6 Wilcox, Stephen. “Alcohol, Drug Dependence and Seniors.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 26 June 2015.