How Alcoholism Gets Worse with Aging

Published On: October 1, 2015

A recent study conducted by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reveals alcohol abuse is on the rise amongst the over 60s. This is a condition known as ‘late-onset alcoholism.’ Many of these people affected by alcoholism later in life did not drink an excessive amount of alcohol beforehand. Many elderly people take to the bottle in order to reduce boredom, manage physical pain or to help get them to sleep at night.

Although studies indicate moderate drinking may decrease the risk of heart disease, people over sixty who drink more than two drinks a day risk a variety of alcohol-induced health ailments. This is because the human body’s ability to cope with alcohol deteriorates as we age.

Since our ageing population continues to grow each year, the Government is urged do something about late-onset alcoholism if a national health crisis is to be avoided.

Although the NCADD’s study analysed US data, the situation is thought to be the same here in the United Kingdom. Some of the key facts highlighted in NCADD’s study include:

  • 6-11% of all elderly patients admitted to hospitals exhibit symptoms of alcoholism
  • 20% of all elderly patients admitted to psychiatric services exhibit symptoms of alcoholism
  • 14% of all elderly patients in emergency rooms exhibit symptoms of alcoholism
  • The prevalence of problem drinking in nursing homes is as high as 49%
  • 17% (8 million) older adults abuse alcohol and drugs- SAMHSA
  • $100 billion is the projected health care costs of alcohol & drug problems among older adults for 2018. This compares to just $30 billion in 1998

Why the elderly are susceptible to alcoholism

The elderly are susceptible to alcoholism for a range of factors including :

  1. Social and psychological factors — these factors include financial hardship, the passing of loved ones and boredom suffered during retirement
  2. Prior excessive alcohol use in earlier life
  3. Alterations in metabolism — Since the metabolism slows down in later life, so does the body’s ability to break down alcohol. This means alcohol remains in the blood for a longer period of time. This is compounded by the fact that kidney filtration weakens. This means the body is less able to dilute the blood of its alcohol content. Therefore the elderly achieve a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) than do younger drinkers
  4. Poor health — This included chronic pain and limited mobility
  5. Use of prescription medications
  6. An unwillingness to seek help for underlying physical and mental problems

The dangers of drinking alcohol for the elderly

Below we outline some of the dangers faced by the elderly who choose to drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

Falling over

One danger relates to falling over whilst intoxicated. Studies reveal hip fractures are more common in the elderly who regularly consume alcohol.

Vehicle accident risk

Another danger faced by the elderly who choose to drink an excessive amount of alcohol is being involved in a vehicle accident. Your likelihood of being involved in a vehicle accident increases when you hit 55. By the time you are 80, you are statistically more likely to cause a vehicle accident than a new driver. No matter what your age, drinking and driving significantly increase the odds of being involved in a vehicle accident. However, these risks are considerably higher for the over 65s.

Mixing alcohol with prescription drugs

Another risk of excessive drinking relates to prescription drugs. In the United Kingdom, people over the age of 65 consume two to six prescription drugs each day. Mixing alcohol with these medications could have deadly consequences. Alcohol may make these medications less effective by breaking them down in the blood. Alternatively, alcohol may increase their strength to dangerous levels. This is because alcohol is a diuretic and dehydrates the blood. Less available water generally increases the strength of prescription medications since they are now less diluted in the bloodstream. Alcohol is particularly deadly when it is mixed with sleeping pills.

Depression and suicide

One study reveals the elderly who regularly drink alcohol are three times more likely to suffer from clinical depression when compared to the elderly who do not drink at all. Another study reveals elderly who suffer from alcoholism are sixteen times more likely to die because of suicide.

Damage to the brain

Alcoholism degrades the elderly’s behavioural and cognitive functioning. Alcoholism even leads to premature ageing of the brain. One study revealed alcoholism-induced brain tissue loss is more prevalent amongst older people who abuse alcohol than younger people. This includes shrinkage of the brain’s frontal lobes.

Promoting cancer

Drinking alcohol can also promote cancer and worsen diabetes.

Misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease

Since alcoholism makes the elderly confused and forgetful, alcoholism may lead to an incorrect diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Getting help

If you are an elderly person who suffers from alcoholism then it’s essential you inform your family immediately. You are also advised to inform your GP. You should also consider attending an AA or SMART Recovery group in your local area.

Consider attending a local Al-anon. Lastly, if your alcoholism is chronic, please consider attending a residential alcohol rehab centre.


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