Adults age 65 and older make up the fastest growing segment of the American population.  As such the seniors also represent a population with an increasing prevalence of alcoholism.  Alcoholism is a condition that is often undetected and undiagnosed in the elderly, yet it is a significant factor in the health, wellness and morbidity of elders.  Alcohol use/abuse is a factor in 10-20% of emergency room visits and hospitalizations of elders.  An estimated 15% of elders have an alcohol problem.

In general there are two types of alcoholics. The first, early-onset alcoholics are those who have been drinking throughout their life time.  These are often adults who were once moderate drinkers but their tolerance increased over time and they required more and more alcohol to produce the desired effect.  The second category are late-onset alcoholics or those who start problem drinking in their later years often related to either their social setting, senior communities often have regular social hours that serve alcohol, or related to loss and grief of events in old age including: loss of work role, deaths, depression, moving from home and so forth.

Aging makes the body less able to handle alcohol the way it may have when younger.  Alcohol use/abuse in conjunction with chronic health issues creates a myriad of problems, particularly when combined with medications used to treat chronic health problems. Mixing alcohol and medications, whether prescription or not, can have serious and dangerous outcomes.  Alcoholism may also speed up the aging process including premature aging of the brain.  Signs that alcohol may be an issue for an elder include:

  • Disheveled or unkempt appearance
  • Alcohol on the breath
  • Angry denial of any problem in this regard
  • Dizziness
  • Depression, depression
  • Disorientation
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Falls, bruises or burns with poor explanations
  • Family problems
  • Financial problems
  • Headaches
  • Home is in terrible disarray
  • Incontinence
  • Memory loss
  • Multiple health care providers (for the same issue)
  • New difficulties in decision-making
  • Not allowing in-home help despite obvious need
  • Not enough money for necessities, despite sufficient income
  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sleep problems
  • Social isolation
  • Unusual response to medications

Complications of long-term alcohol use include but are not limited to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Memory impairment
  • Nerve damage
  • Falls and related complications
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreas problems
  • Gastritis and ulcers
  • Esophageal problems
  • A variety of cancers

Seniors can receive assistance and treatment for alcoholism and intervention for the events leading up to their use of alcohol. Simply being aware of an elder’s alcohol use can help a physician and the entire care team to take steps that minimize risks and reduce adverse situations associated with alcohol use.

For more information on substance use and abuse in elders visit the website:

If you are concerned about an elder and suspect alcohol might be a factor in their current situation, please call Matrix AdvoCare Network for a comprehensive assessment to help evaluate and assist in determining a plan of care to aid that elder. 952-525-0505.