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Alcohol Abuse Among Elderly People (Seniors)

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the prevalence of alcohol use disorder (AUD) among seniors increases. Data shows about 6 percent of older people drink heavily – consuming 15 or more drinks per week (men) and 8 or more drinks per week (women). The majority of them are older men. Understanding the reasons older people drink and knowing the treatment options available help if you or a senior loved one struggles with AUD.

Causes & Symptoms of Alcoholism in the Elderly

Widowers over the age of 75 tend to struggle the most with alcohol use disorder. More than 10 percent of all hospital admissions among the elderly are linked to drug and alcohol use. It’s estimated that more than half of all nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems.

Why do seniors struggle so much with alcoholism? There are many reasons, including:

  • Grief, especially after the loss of a spouse
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Not feeling useful or with purpose
  • Financial problems
  • Physical and mental health issues

Some seniors use alcohol as a coping tool to help them deal with the challenges they face in their later years. There is no single cause of alcoholism in the elderly. Like cases of alcoholism in any other age group, the reasons are as varied as the individuals with the problem. The challenges that occur as we age are as difficult as those we face at any age and many turn to alcohol to cope.

Knowing the symptoms of AUD in older people helps you recognize if you or a loved one has a problem. Symptoms include:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Failing hygiene
  • Skipping doctor’s appointments
  • Hypertension
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Frequent falls and other unexplained injuries
  • Frequent emergency room visits

Elderly Alcoholism as a Coping Strategy

Some seniors feel as if they have “outlived their usefulness.” Their children are grown, they’ve retired, and they don’t have the same responsibilities they did when they were younger. Some people welcome the relief of having no obligations, but others struggle with it. Some turn to alcohol to escape these negative feelings. Instead of searching for meaning later in life, they use alcohol as a coping strategy.

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Health Risks of Elderly Alcoholism

The health risks associated with alcoholism are abundant at any age. However, because it becomes more challenging to maintain good health as we age, the effects of drinking too much alcohol are especially detrimental for seniors.

Some of the most common health risks associated with elderly alcoholism include:

  • Diabetes
  • Decreased libido
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney problems
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Liver problems, including fatty liver disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Memory problems, often related to a vitamin B deficiency, which also triggers confusion, issues with muscle coordination, and eye paralysis
  • Mood disorders
  • Dehydration, which can trigger kidney problems, brain swelling, seizures, coma, and death
  • Bad interactions with medications, including over-the-counter pain and cold medications, sleeping pills, and anxiety and depression medications
The Health Effects of Alcohol

Seniors already have a heightened risk of many of these health issues. Drinking too much alcohol further increases the risks they face.

Questions About Alcoholism Treatment for Seniors?

Is it possible for seniors to overcome alcoholism? Are there treatment options geared toward seniors?

Yes. There are several treatments available to help seniors with alcohol use disorder. Some of the most common treatment approaches include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — helps seniors rebuild their social support networks and better manage their difficult emotions.
  • Family or marital therapy — helps seniors build strong bonds with loved ones to help them through difficult times.
  • Group therapy — helps seniors establish connections with peers who are also struggling with AUD.
  • Medically supervised detox and inpatient treatment programs — helps seniors safely remove alcohol from their bodies under the supervision of medical professionals and immerse themselves in a treatment environment.

Although it’s possible to participate in a generic treatment program for adults, many seniors benefit from treatment in a facility tailored to their age group. These programs tend to have a slower pace and are less confrontational than some of the other options. 

Alcohol and addiction treatment programs for the elderly also have medical staff that’s familiar with and capable of managing other medical issues associated with older people. Programs for the elderly offer inpatient, outpatient, and community-based support. There are also 12-step programs designed for older people.

Medication-assisted alcohol treatment is rarely used for seniors. This is because two of the medications - Disulfiram and naltrexone - are not considered safe for older patients with AUD. Disulfiram increases the risk of serious side effects in seniors. Naltrexone, which reduces alcohol cravings, has not been evaluated in the treatment of older patients.

Doctors encourage family members of seniors with AUD to take an active role in their loved one’s recovery. Family support is important for more people with addiction, but it’s especially so for older adults who need cognitive and physical support. For some, transitioning from a treatment program to a nursing home is the safest and healthiest option.

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Resources

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Rigler, Sally K. “Alcoholism in the Elderly.” American Family Physician, vol. 61, no. 6, 2013, pp. 1710–1716, www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0315/p1710.html.

Ciulla, Anna. “The Do’s and Don’ts of Alcohol Intervention for Seniors.” US News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2018, health.usnews.com/health-care/for-better/articles/2018-07-16/the-dos-and-donts-of-alcohol-intervention-for-seniors.

Ruth Peters, Jean Peters, James Warner, Nigel Beckett, Christopher Bulpitt, Alcohol, dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly: a systematic review, Age and Ageing, Volume 37, Issue 5, September 2008, Pages 505–512, https://doi.org/10.1093/ageing/afn095. https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/37/5/505/40284

Kim, Jee Wook et al. “Alcohol and cognition in the elderly: a review.” Psychiatry investigation vol. 9,1 (2012): 8-16. doi:10.4306/pi.2012.9.1.8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285745/

“Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nia.nih.gov/health/facts-about-aging-and-alcohol.

“Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nia.nih.gov/health/facts-about-aging-and-alcohol.

Thun, Michael J., et al. “Alcohol Consumption and Mortality among Middle-Aged and Elderly U.S. Adults: NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine, 11 Dec. 1997, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199712113372401.

Dufour MC, Archer L, Gordis E. Alcohol and the elderly. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. 1992 Feb;8(1):127-141. DOI: 10.1016/s0749-0690(18)30502-0. https://europepmc.org/article/med/1576571
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