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Alcohol Misuse Rises Among Older Adults

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It had been a stressful day. Recently retired, Mary now spends her time caring for her elderly parents, an hour’s drive away, and today had been particularly trying. Her father, with dementia, had been uncooperative, and the whole day had felt like a long battle. Mary was glad to get home, put her feet up, and uncork a bottle of red wine. She poured glass after glass, until she felt relaxed - very relaxed. She admits she was a little shocked to discover the next day she’d consumed the entire bottle.

“I enjoy red wine, and it’s supposed to be good for me,” Mary said. “Drinking a whole bottle is probably a bit much, but it’s not like I do it every week. Maybe a few times a year I go on a bit of a bender. I don’t think it’s a problem.”

Mary didn’t recognize herself as a binge drinker. She thought the occasional misuse of alcohol was merely a social faux pas. But the Public Health Agency of Canada cites evidence that suggests that binge drinking is linked to negative impacts on the liver, the brain, cancer and cardiovascular health, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention frame binge drinking as “the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States.” And as a woman over age 65, Mary is the new face of American binge drinkers.

When you picture the typical binge drinker, you may envision a college student passed out on the frat house lawn on a Saturday night. However, new research shows that adults over age 65 actually binge drink more than any other group in the U.S. And rates of heavy drinking in women over age 65 have been rising steadily in Canada over the past decade, too.

The Effects of Senior Alcohol Misuse

Many Americans and Canadians enjoy having a glass of wine, a bottle of beer or a cocktail with dinner. And for some people, this poses no problem.

Older adults, however, may not realize how drinking alcohol can affect their health and safety as they age. Alcohol metabolism slows down as a person gets older. This means it takes longer for the alcohol in a glass of wine to filter out of an older person’s system, compared with someone younger. And because women naturally experience slower alcohol metabolism than men, older women may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of even small amounts of alcohol.

Another concern for older adults who drink is medication interaction. Many older adults take medications for chronic medical conditions, and healthcare professionals should not assume these clients understand how combining alcohol with certain drugs can create a toxic or even lethal effect. Drinking while taking anti-anxiety drugs, for example, can suppress breathing until it ceases entirely. Like all people who take prescription drugs, seniors may need to be educated about the ways in which drinking might interact with the medications they take.

Older adults also should be aware that effects from alcohol consumption like memory loss or poor balance mimic the symptoms of certain medical conditions, such as dementia, which can delay proper diagnosis and treatment. And heavy drinking can increase a person’s risk for many medical conditions that older adults already are vulnerable to, including cardiovascular disease, ulcers and even certain types of cancer.

Of course, alcohol also slows a person’s reflexes, making it unsafe to drive, and can contribute to falls in the home. Epidemiologist Rachel Breslow of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism said in an interview that alcohol is a factor in about 40 percent of fatal falls. In other words, when seniors drink they increase their already-elevated risk of falling and being injured.

Raising Awareness

Senior care professionals and clinicians can play a key role in raising awareness among the older adult population about the effects of alcohol consumption. Some experts believe nurses and doctors should perform alcohol screening as a part of every routine patient exam. Taking this simple step can spark a conversation about alcohol consumption with the client.

And when it comes to having a conversation about a person’s alcohol use, it’s best to be empathetic and non-judgmental. According to Dr. Benita Walton-Moss of the University of Southern California, women tend to “feel stigmatized when they have an alcohol dependency.” She advises treating alcohol dependency as a medical condition, not as a character flaw.

Senior care professionals who are not clinicians also can play a role in helping to keep older adults safe from the negative effects of drinking by noting signs of potential alcohol misuse and reporting them to a manager for referral and handling. When senior clients do use alcohol, care providers also should be vigilant for balance issues and increased fall risk.

Many healthy older adults may be able to have a glass of wine at dinner without experiencing any ill effects. But others may be unaware of potential medication interactions or the negative physical effects alcohol consumption may have on them. By raising awareness of senior drinking, care professionals can help keep older adults safe and well at home.


Last revised: December 5, 2017

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