HomeAlcoholProblem Drinking on the Rise among Seniors

Problem Drinking on the Rise among Seniors

Written By: Harris House

Category: Alcohol, Blog, Recovery, Relapse

When you hear the words “drinking problem,” young people are often the first demographic that comes to mind. However, older adults are also vulnerable to excessive drinking and the problems that go along with it, according to a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Published in JAMA Psychiatry, the findings indicate that seniors are drinking alcohol more than ever before. Here’s a closer look at the issue, along with what you can do if you think you or someone you love may have a problem with drinking.

Person drinking from a metal flask.

Seniors also struggle with substance abuse, but the problem often goes unnoticed.

Seniors and Drinking

Comparing data from a national survey of 40,000 adults in 2001 and 2002 and again in 2012 and 2013, researchers determined that drinking increased across every age group.  The group with the largest increase of 22 percent? Older adults. Even more alarming is the fact that the proportion of older adults engaging in “high-risk drinking” skyrocketed by a staggering 65 percent. Not only that, but the number of older adults with an alcohol use disorder — now three percent — more than doubled over the decade.

Said psychiatrist and addiction specialist Marc Schuckit of the phenomenon,  “The trajectory over time is remarkable. You have to say there’s something going on.”

The National Council for Aging Care, meanwhile, shares other eye-opening statistics, including that as many as 15 percent of people don’t start drinking heavily until they’re older in age and that approximately 11 percent of elderly hospital admissions can be attributed to issues pertaining to drugs and alcohol.

Think aging loved ones are exempt because they live in a nursing home or in assisted living? Think again. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), just under 50 percent of seniors in these environments have alcohol-related problems.

This begs the question: why are seniors more likely to start drinking than younger people? “Life changes often trigger alcoholism in older adults…Such events might include a spousal death, divorce, movement to a fixed income or inability to do normal physical tasks. Educated and affluent people are often affected by these life changes,” reports Forbes. 

Why Senior Drinking Is a Problem

Excessive alcohol use is problematic at any age. However, the repercussions can be greater for seniors because aging reduces the body’s tolerance and therefore makes them more sensitive to alcohol. This puts them at a higher risk for unintentional injuries ranging from falls to car crashes.

Older adults also have less muscle to absorb alcohol and less water in their bodies, which can also explain why they feel the effects of alcohol more quickly.

Plus, alcohol use can also contribute to the proliferation of other age-related conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, osteoporosis, memory problems, mood disorders, and dehydration.

Factor in that many seniors are on many medications, and that combining alcohol with drugs — even OTC ones — can be dangerous and even life-threatening, and the problem with seniors and alcohol abuse amplify.

Seniors and Substance Abuse Treatment

The good news, according to one study? Older adults are both more likely to adhere to treatment and less likely to relapse. The bad news? Getting them into treatment can be a struggle because older people are less likely to self-identify than younger generations as abusing substances. This is what makes identifying the issue critical to resolving it.

While doctors can screen for substance abuse among older adults, they’re far from the only ones who can catch substance abuse in seniors. Proposes the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment’s resource, Substance Abuse Among Older Adults“Friends and family of older adults and staff of senior centers, including drivers and volunteers who see older adults on a regular basis, are intimately acquainted with their habits and daily routines. Frequently they are in the best position to detect those behavioral changes that signal a possible problem.”

Elderly woman visiting with a medical doctor.

While doctors can screen for substance abuse,  they’re not the only ones who can notice evidence of a problem.

If a senior is determined to have a substance use disorder, the right communication strategies are pivotal to getting them the treatment they need. “Because many older at-risk and problem drinkers are ashamed about their drinking, intervention strategies need to be especially non-confrontational and supportive,” continues the report. This may take time, however. “Clinicians have observed that this process is akin to planting and nurturing a seed. Bringing the seed to fruition, however, ultimately depends on the older adult,” it concludes.

Just as substance abuse is different for seniors, so is treatment. Choosing an addiction treatment program which acknowledges the unique needs of the individual is important. One thing each program should share, however, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment? “Treatment programs should cultivate a culture of respect for older clients. Nurturing clients’ self-esteem and reawakening their sense of themselves as valuable, competent human beings are central to the process.”  This is exactly what older adults will find at Harris House. To learn more about Harris House’s targeted treatment programs, contact us today.