Drinking Problems Among the Elderly: Senior Adults and Binge Drinking

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A study published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society indicates that approximately one in ten senior adults (age 65 +) reported binge drinking in the month prior to completing a questionnaire for the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. Study authors pooled data from the years 2015-2017 to ensure they reported on a legitimate trend in the drinking habits of seniors, rather than a single year with unusually high results.

Researchers recognize the actual numbers might be higher, as seniors may be hesitant to admit the extent of their drinking. They also report the possibility that, due to various cognitive issues associated with aging, senior respondents may not offer and accurate account of their past drinking habits.

The study shows that binge drinkers in the senior population are more likely to be male. However, the rate of binge drinking among men remained stable compare to previous years, while rates among women increased. Men are also more likely to use tobacco and cannabis and are more likely to have visited an emergency room during 12 months before completing the survey.

In addition, research from the National Institute on Aging Care indicates that widowers (men who have lost their spouse) over age 75 have the highest rate of alcohol use disorder in the nation. Nearly half of all nursing home residents have a problem with alcohol, which may or may not include binge drinking.

What is Binge Drinking?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as five drinks or more on the same occasion for men, or four drinks for women. However, it’s important to note that as we age, we become less tolerant of alcohol, and the effects of alcohol appear more rapidly than earlier in life.

The NIAAA recommends that seniors should consume no than three drinks per day. Experts from Harvard University suggest that older people should stop at one or two drinks, and should drink only occasionally, not every day.

Why Senior Adults Turn to Alcohol

Senior citizens may be long-term drinkers who started using alcohol many years ago. However, researchers estimate that at least 10 to 15 percent of older drinkers didn’t drink heavily until later in life.

Senior drinkers may experience a number of life challenges, such as grief and loss of loved ones, concern about reduced income, illness, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, loneliness, lack of social support, or boredom.

Why Binge Drinking and Excess Alcohol Use are Dangerous for Senior Adults

The National Council for Aging Care explains that muscle tissue absorbs alcohol rapidly, but as we age, fat gradually replaces muscle. As a result, more alcohol enters the bloodstream, and it takes longer for the body to process.

Binge drinking and excess alcohol intake are dangerous for anybody at any age, but the risks are compounded as we grow older. Potential dangers include:

  • Increased risk of falling resulting in broken bones or other injuries
  • Higher incidence of car accidents
  • Negative interactions with prescribed medications, including sleeping pills, pain relievers, and anti-depressants
  • Negative interactions with over-the-counter medications, including aspirin, acetaminophen, cold and allergy medicines, and cough syrup
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Problems with muscle coordination
  • Increased risk of serious illness, including diabetes, heart disease, and dementia
  • Osteoporosis and gradual weakening of the bones
  • Compounded memory loss and confusion
  • Higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, and kidney failure
  • Decreased libido, increased impotence, and erectile dysfunction
  • Increases risk of alcoholic fatty liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver
  • Mood disorders
  • Severe dehydration

It’s important to understand these dangers, and inform loved ones about them if they don’t fully understand the risks associated with binge drinking or excess alcohol use.

Does Your Elderly Loved One Have a Drinking Problem?

It can be challenging to determine if an older person has a drinking problem. Confusion, forgetfulness, unsteady gait, social isolation, irritability, or other symptoms of excess drinking may resemble typical issues associated with aging.

Friends and younger family members often hesitate to discuss an elderly loved one’s drinking habits. They may be embarrassed, or they may think senior citizens should be able to enjoy their later years.

However, without the input of friends, caregivers, and younger family members, binge drinking and excess drinking among the elderly would likely go unnoticed.

Physicians tend to focus on the drinking habits of their younger patients more than their older patients. They may be reluctant to broach the issue for a variety of reasons, and many physicians lack adequate training to identify the signs of excess alcohol use among seniors.

Excess Drinking in Seniors: Signs and Symptoms

A  mental health professional is your best resource for determining whether a senior loved one has a drinking problem. However, anyone can recognize the red flags that may indicate your elderly loved one drinks too much:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Memory lapses
  • Changes in appearance
  • Poor hygiene or grooming
  • Unsteady gate
  • Occasionally slurring words
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and anger
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Blackouts

If you see these signs and symptoms in a friend or loved one, consider bringing up the subject with them. If you’re unsure how to do that, keep reading: we can help.

Talking About Treatment: Finding Treatment for Senior Adults

It’s not easy to talk to an older person about her drinking problem, but it’s necessary. Here’s a four-step approach we advise:

  1. Choose a quiet time to discuss your concerns. Choose another time if you think your loved one is under the influence or isn’t feeling well.
  2. Express your concern in a direct, straightforward manner, but be patient and supportive. Don’t lecture, and don’t be critical or judgmental.
  3. Keep in mind that seniors benefit from treatment as much as any other age group. Treatment for alcohol use disorder can ensure those later years are healthy and fulfilling lives.
  4. Offer to help your loved one find the best treatment possible. Twelve-Step community support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are invaluable, but many people require professional treatment from a provider that understands the unique needs of older people. Outpatient treatment may be good enough for some seniors, but a person with a serious drinking problem may need inpatient treatment.

Seniors with a severe or long-term drinking problem benefit from medical or supervised detox. Medical detox programs offer around the clock monitoring and support, which makes withdrawal as safe and comfortable as possible.

Treatment For Seniors: Special Considerations

Addiction treatment programs for the elderly should be age-specific, since what works for a younger person may not be the best solution for an older adult. Treatment for seniors should move at a steady, comfortable pace. Counselors should be compassionate and well-trained regarding the issues of the elderly. They should understand how to cope with hearing loss, memory loss, or other cognitive changes. Suitable treatment for older folks should address issues such as stress management, loneliness, lack of social support, anxiety, depression, and grief. Finally, a good treatment program should include a thorough aftercare plan. An aftercare plan or program is an organized approach to sustaining sobriety when official inpatient or outpatient treatment ends. Aftercare programs are critical to prevent relapse, as the risk is higher for seniors who live alone.