Americans drink about 2.3 gallons of alcohol per year. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that in 2019, almost 26 percent of people age 18 and older said they binge drank in the month before they were questioned. Also, a little over 6% of people in that age bracket said they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the previous month. Another astounding fact: 10% to 15% percent of people do not start to drink heavily until they are older in age.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that “alcohol is the most used drug among older adults, with about 65% of people 65 and older reporting high-risk drinking, defined as exceeding daily guidelines at least weekly in the past year.” It also notes that “more than a tenth of adults age 65 and older currently binge drink.”
Admissions to substance use treatment centers for those 65 years and older rose to an astounding 107 percent for alcohol use disorder (AUD) from 2001 to 2013.
Alcohol contributes to one-third of all falls by the elderly. When an older person falls, their older, thinner bones are susceptible to fractures. But how else does alcohol affect the elderly? Keep reading to find out.
The Older Body and Alcohol Use
Alcohol can affect the older body and mind in many ways, from raising blood pressure to increasing the risk of dementia. As you grow older, your brain, body and organs all change with the passing of time. Here are some of the changes that can occur:
Less Muscle To Absorb Alcohol
Alcohol is first partially absorbed through the stomach in the gastrointestinal tract before it is distributed through the bloodstream. It absorbs much faster into muscle than fat. For many older people, muscle loss is probable. When you lose muscle, it is replaced by fat. When an elderly person consumes alcohol, there is less muscle for absorption and more flowing through the bloodstream. It is not metabolizing fast enough, so it causes older people to feel the effects of alcohol longer.
Less Water In The Body
Dehydration is a major problem for older people. There is less water in the body than when younger. Water makes up 70 percent of the body when young. As people age, water decreases by roughly 15 percent from ages 20 to 80. The older you are, the less water in your body. Elderly people often do not feel thirsty and don’t drink enough water. Less water is retained. Kidney function decreases, slowing down the rate of metabolism. The slowing of metabolism slows down the breakdown of alcohol in the body.
Lower Tolerance For Alcohol
Age lowers the tolerance for alcohol. An older person may experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger. The more that is drunk, the more likely the chance to fall, be involved in a vehicle accident, or suffer other unintentional injuries that result from drinking.
The Elderly, Drinking, and Safety Issues
Safety is a vital concern for anyone with an elderly person in their life. As the people we love and care for age, we are constantly worried about their safety at home, away from home, and on the road. The National Institute on Aging reminds of the ways consuming alcohol can create safety problems for the elderly:
- Causes 60% of falls and 40% of crashes and burns
- Causes impairment in coordination, judgment, and reaction time
- Causes an increased risk of household accidents, falls, and vehicle accidents
- Causes a loss of balance, which can increase the possibility of falling that could involve bone breaks
- Can exasperate already known health issues, such as diabetes, heart problems, and/or cognitive deficiencies
In addition, when the elderly drink alcohol, it can react negatively with prescription and over-the-counter medicine by increasing or decreasing the medication’s effects.
How to Identify Alcohol Misuse Signs in The Elderly
It is often difficult to notice the signs of misuse of alcohol in the elderly. Many of the signs resemble the same ones as aging present. An older person can be irritable, feel fatigued, and struggle with insomnia, which are common signs of aging and alcohol consumption. Other signs that can be mistaken are:
- Memory loss
- Less interest in hobbies and leisure activities
- Sudden change in eating habits
- Diminished hygiene
- General change of appearance, smelling of alcohol, slurring speech
If you have concerns about an elderly person in your life who might be drinking too much alcohol, it would be wise to know how to handle the problem. It’s not easy to bring the subject up, especially if the older person is troublesome or sensitive. However, health and safety should precede those concerns.
What to Do if an Elderly Person Needs Help
Start the conversation with kindness, respect, and love. Let them know you care about them. Share that you’ve observed how much alcohol they are consuming. Remind them of the effects of alcohol when taking prescription medicine and how it can affect them. Let them know that you are very worried about their health and safety.
If your elderly loved one lives in a retirement home, independent or assisted living community, or is far from you, reach out to their main caregivers. Mention what signs of alcohol use you’ve heard or seen of your elderly person recently. Gently inquire if they have observed the person drinking more alcohol than usual.
There are many organizations one can turn to for guidance about an elderly person with an alcohol use problem. You can find them online and ask anonymously for advice.
It is not easy to know how alcohol affects the elderly. The information provided here is meant to be beneficial to those who read it. Alcohol use disorder is a substance use disorder, better known as addiction, which is a chronic disease of the mind affecting the brain’s reward center.
The Palm Beach Institute is a long-standing substance use treatment center that can help the elderly stop drinking and live a longer, healthier life.