Alcohol abuse is the number one public health problem in the United States. While most of us may not be surprised by this fact, family, friends and health providers often overlook older adults as abusers of alcohol but the problem is more common than we think. As we age we face a variety of stressors which can lead to alcohol abuse such as diminished health, limited mobility, financial trouble or caring for a loved one.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 80,000 of our country’s nearly eight million alcoholics are seniors, and older adults are hospitalized as often for alcoholic related problems as they are for heart attacks.
April is Alcohol Awareness Month, an opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of alcoholism, its causes and effective treatment and recovery. It is also a time to become more aware of the signs in older adults. Drinking problems often go unrecognized because the symptoms are often the same signs as aging: falls, loss of memory, problems sleeping and depression.
Alcohol abuse is harmful at any age but it’s even more serious and life threatening for older adults. As we age, our body’s tolerance for alcohol lessens due to a decreased lean body mass, the amount of water in our body and a diminished ability of the liver to process alcohol. This means that minimal alcohol consumption can cause a variety of serious health problems.
In older adults, too much alcohol can lead to balance problems and in turn falls and accidents, it slows down brain activity and affects alertness, judgement, coordination and reaction time. Additionally, it may worsen medical conditions common in older people such as diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, osteoporosis, memory problems and mood disorder. Drugs can also intensify the impact of alcohol or interact badly with certain medications.
According to the National Institute on Aging, seniors who seek help for a drinking problem have a good chance for recovery because they are likely to stick to a program tailored to their needs. In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month, OptumCare offers tips on what you can do if you suspect a loved one is abusing alcohol:
Know the signs – Signs can include frequently having more than one drink a day, lying or hiding drinking habits, loss of interest in food, feeling irritable, resentful or unreasonable when not drinking.
Assess the situation – Be cognizant of changes in their life and behavior. Determine what has changed and assist them with overcoming the situation(s).
Acknowledge feelings – Help them acknowledge and mourn any losses or hardships they may be experiencing.
Seek support – Help them find treatment or support groups. Encourage them to interact with friends and family.
Suggest activities – Often the problem is boredom. Make suggestions for other activities to keep them busy so they are not consumed by loneliness or excess of free time.
Let’s help our loved ones age gracefully and keep them healthy for many years to come. For more information or to get help call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Rich Crislip is director of behavioral health for OptumCare Arizona.