The Dangers of Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors

Awareness and treatment can help support seniors who abuse alcohol. Here, the executive director of Hegira Health, Inc. offers insight.

Confusion, changes in memory, difficulty getting around, instability and sleep problems are challenges seniors can experience during the aging process. For those caring for aging loved ones, each is potentially worrisome, but what most people don’t know is these problems are also symptoms of alcohol abuse.

Surprisingly, health professionals see a higher incidence of alcohol abuse in seniors than in other populations, says Carol Zuniga, executive director at Hegira Health, Inc., a nonprofit mental health and substance abuse treatment agency that contracts to the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network.

“As parents ourselves, we tell our kids they shouldn’t be drinking in college, but that’s not our first thought for our own parent at 83,” Zuniga says. “Our society views this as a youth issue.” And, with public awareness currently trained on opioid abuse, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the number of seniors abusing alcohol is about five times that of seniors abusing opiates.

Members of the baby boom generation have bucked previous generations’ trends toward decreased alcohol use, possibly leaning on social behaviors learned during their own coming-of-age.

“There was a real relaxation in the use of alcohol and drugs in the 1960s and ’70s that has continued,” Zuniga says. “We now have a lot of people with a lot of life left in them who are looking at substances as a way to cope.”

What puts seniors at risk?

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A number of factors put seniors at risk for alcohol abuse. “As we age, we metabolize alcohol differently and we can’t drink at the same pace or rate and have the same experience we had when we were younger. Lesser amounts have a stronger effect,” Zuniga says. The liver also functions differently as we age, offering an easier pathway to abuse. “As a result, lesser use causes accidents and falling, trips to the emergency department after a fall in the bathtub, for instance,” she says.

Aging can increase the frequency of medical conditions and use of medication, all of which can be negatively impacted by alcohol consumption, Zuniga says.

“Drinking can have a negative effect on diabetes, hypertension and other disorders. Long term drinkers also tend to have liver disease, and that impacts the functioning of other vital organs. It all becomes a lot more complicated, and it doesn’t take a lot of alcohol to begin to cause problems.”

Frequently referred to as an invisible epidemic, alcohol abuse in seniors is often unrecognized or overlooked by family members, and many seniors don’t openly admit to having a problem because of associated shame and stigma. Yet 50 percent of older adult visits to the ER reveal substance use, Zuniga notes.

Preventing alcohol abuse

Awareness is key. “Recognize what puts older adults at a higher risk,” Zuniga says. “Pay attention to life stressors like the loss of a close friend, partner or spouse. Retirement itself is an issue for many older people, particularly if it is not planned and there is a loss of income.”

Those with chronic illnesses, people who take multiple medications, those living alone or who are socially isolated, and those with mental health histories or current mental health issues are all at risk. Men are three times more likely than women to develop alcohol abuse later in life.

By not leaving seniors to spend frequent or extended periods of time alone, you can help mitigate the risk factors and talk about issues and ask questions about alcohol use. Get permission to communicate with your parents’ physicians so you can discuss concerns as they arise. “In many situations, alcohol abuse is identified through an ER visit for something unrelated,” Zuniga says. “If you know that person has struggled with depression and anxiety, even in the past, and is experiencing current stressors, be alert to the potential to use alcohol to self-medicate.”

If you suspect alcohol abuse

While the solution to simply stop drinking can seem simple, abrupt abstinence can have a negative impact on existing senior health conditions. “A medical assessment is really important,” Zuniga says. Recognize your loved one’s trust in their primary care physician and start with an office visit so this doctor can coordinate care. “Depending on medical conditions and how much is being used, there can be a determination of what’s next,” she says. “There are a lot of avenues.”

Content brought to you by the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network. For more information, visit dwihn.org or call the 24-hour helpline at 800-241-4949.

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