A recent study out of the U.K. and Australia found that overall, alcohol use and risky episodic drinking has been declining among young and middle-aged people. And in the U.S., frequent binge drinking has decreased among adolescents from 1991-2015. But a study published in the British Medical Journal shows that alcohol abuse has increased significantly among those over age 50. And the greatest increase in drug misuse and abuse has occurred among people over age 60.
Seniors Abusing Alcohol and Drugs
The Office for National Statistics in the U.K. has been tracking drinking patterns and prevalence since 2005. Their data show that the number of people abstaining from alcohol in 2016 was the highest recorded. However, the same research shows that people over 50 have higher rates of both past year and lifetime use and abuse of illicit drugs. And the greatest increase has occurred among people over age 60. The study also finds an increasing number of women who are drinking heavily later in life.
Why is Alcohol Risky for Seniors?
Aging can lower the body’s tolerance for alcohol. Older adults generally experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger. This puts older adults at higher risks for falls, car accidents and other unintentional injuries that may result from drinking.
In addition, heavy drinking can worsen certain health problems that are common in older adults, including diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, memory problems and mood disorders.
Furthermore, many medications older people commonly take interact badly with alcohol. Examples include aspirin, acetaminophen and cold and allergy medication.
How Much is Too Much?
In general, for healthy senior adults moderate drinking is considered to be one-half to one ounce of pure alcohol per day (for men up to two ounces), which in the U.S. equates to one 12-ounce beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. These amounts may be lower for women and may decrease the older a person gets due to age-related physical changes that significantly affect the way an older person metabolizes alcohol.
Drinking more than these amounts puts people at risk of serious alcohol problems. Those with health problems or who take certain medications may need to drink less or abstain completely.
Why are Seniors Drinking and Abusing Drugs?
Analysis shows that alcohol abuse among this age group is correlated by adverse life events – retirement, changing living arrangements, isolation from family and friends, and grief and loss – all of which share a common theme: isolation and loneliness.
For some older adults, abuse of alcohol and drugs is the continuation of a pattern that began earlier in life. But for other older people, abusing alcohol may be an attempt to cope with the stresses that come with normal aging. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug abuse tend to worsen any problems that come with getting older. Additional research on chronic pain and depression among the middle-aged and elderly often are associated with abusing drugs and alcohol.
Social changes over the last 50 years have taken a heavy toll on the extended family. The elderly were valued and cared for by their children and extended family, a tradition that has endured for many millennia. But the shift from an agricultural economy to a highly technology economic system has resulted in changes we’re just beginning to understand.
Today’s families move approximately every four to five years. This has uprooted important familial, social and emotional attachments and has isolated older people, who now live longer than ever. Increased longevity may not mean a better quality of life for many older people.
Because of a lack of awareness of increasing substance abuse among older adults, detection of abuse can be challenging.
What Are the Warning Signs of the Elderly Abusing Alcohol?
Sometimes trouble with alcohol and drugs in older people is mistaken for other conditions related to aging. If you are an older adult, or you care for or spend time with an older adult, there are indications of both alcohol and drug addiction.
Signs of alcohol abuse include:
- solitary or secretive drinking
- a ritual of drinking before, with, or after dinner
- a loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities
- drinking in spite of warning labels on prescription drugs
- slurred speech
- empty liquor and beer bottles
- smell of alcohol on breath
- change in personal appearance
- memory loss and confusion
Signs that an older adult may be abusing prescription drugs include getting a prescription for the same medicine from two different doctors, filling a prescription for the same medicine at two different pharmacies, taking more of a medicine than before or taking more than is instructed, taking the medicine at different times or more often than instructed, becoming more withdrawn or angry, appearing confused or forgetful, talking often about a medicine, being afraid to go somewhere without taking a medicine, becoming defensive when asked about a medicine, making excuses for why a medicine is needed, storing “extra” pills in purses or pockets and sneaking or hiding medicine.
Where Can I Find Help?
If you recognize these warning signs in yourself or a loved one, there’s help. Call Positive Sobriety Institute today to speak with an addiction specialist. Recovery can begin at any age.