The Link Between Alcoholism And Early Aging

Alcoholism is a disease that affects people of all ages, including the elderly. Although you may not want to admit that your parents or grandparents abuse alcohol, or that your aunts or uncles need alcohol rehab, older adults need help for alcoholism just like teens and young adults.

There are two main types of problem drinkers a chronic and situational and older adults can fall under either category. Most frequently, older adults are chronic alcohol abusers, who have been heavy drinkers for many years. Other elderly individuals may develop a drinking problem late in life, often because of “situational” factors such as retirement, health concerns, boredom, loneliness, or the death of friends or loved ones. At first, having a drink brings relief, but later it can turn into an alcohol addiction that requires alcohol rehab treatment.

How Alcohol Affects Older Adults

In general, alcohol works the same way in the older adult brain as it does in young adults. Alcohol slows down brain activity, which affects the users alertness, judgment, coordination and reaction time. Alcohol abuse is of particular concern among the elderly because drinking increases the risk of falls and accidents.

A few studies have suggested that older people are more dramatically affected by smaller amounts of alcohol than younger people. The long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Permanent damage to the brain and central nervous system
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation of the pancreas
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Liver disease (alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver)
  • Certain types of cancer, particularly mouth, throat and esophagus

These effects can make certain medical problems hard to diagnose in the elderly. Because alcohol abuse can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels, an older adult may miss the pain that can warn an impending heart attack. Alcohol abuse also can cause forgetfulness and confusion, which can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other conditions.

The Risk of Drug and Alcohol Interactions

Alcohol is dangerous by itself, but can be exponentially more dangerous when combined with prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications. Drug interactions are of particular concern for people over 65, because they are often heavy users of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. Mixing alcohol with sleeping pills, pain killers or antihistamines can be fatal. For example, a commonly used and seemingly safe drug, aspirin, can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines, particularly when combined with alcohol. As people age, the body’s ability to absorb and dispose of alcohol and other drugs changes, which increases the risks of mixing drugs and alcohol.

Recognizing Alcoholism in Older Adults

Like young adults, older adults may drink alcohol without developing a drinking problem. But use can quickly turn into alcohol abuse, and older adults in particular need a caring friend or loved one to step in and offer to help. Some of the signs of a drinking problem in the elderly include:

  • Drinking to feel good or alleviate difficult emotions
  • Lying to hide heavy drinking habits
  • Drinking alone
  • Blacking out
  • Hurt yourself, or someone else, while drinking
  • Needing more alcohol to feel drunk
  • Feeling irritable or resentful when unable to drink
  • Continuing to drink despite medical, social, legal or financial problems caused by drinking

Help for a Drinking Problem

While it may not be easy to get an older adult into alcohol rehab, the good news is once they decide to get help for a drinking problem, they’re often highly successful in achieving long-term sobriety. Don’t make the mistake of watching yourself or a loved one slip away to alcoholism.