BY NANCY REDDINGTON PARLO
Recently released medical research indicates that many of the problems associated with aging can actually be attributed, at least in part, to the abuse of alcohol. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, problem drinking is rising fast among older Americans. It is believed that about 10 percent of the country’s population abuses alcohol, but surveys have revealed that as many as 17 percent of over-65 adults have an alcohol-abuse problem.
As baby boomers age, they generally keep many of the habits developed when they were younger. Those that made commitments to exercise and healthy eating, generally continue to follow the same patterns. The same can be said for drinking habits. And in many instances the problem develops slowly over time.
Even if older people are healthier, they are still prone to late-life physical changes that can make drinking riskier. While two drinks a night at age 40 might not be an issue, two daily drinks at age 70 becomes more complicated. With each drink, an older person’s blood alcohol level will rise higher than a younger drinker’s; additionally, older people have less muscle mass and the liver metabolizes alcohol more slowly. Aging brains also grow more sensitive to the sedative properties of alcohol.
Drinking worsens many medical conditions common in older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers. The effects of alcohol can make some medical conditions hard to diagnose because of changes that alcohol can cause in the heart and blood vessels. Alcohol abuse can cause symptoms that mimic Alzheimer’s disease such as confusion and memory loss. Other possible symptoms of possible alcohol abuse include depression, repetitive falls and injuries, chronic diarrhea, mood swings, malnutrition and isolation.
The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment has developed a list of signals that may indicate an alcohol related problem in the elderly:
• Memory trouble after having a drink or taking a medication
• Loss of coordination, walking unsteadily/frequent falls
• Changes in sleeping habits
• Unexplained bruises
• Questioning things, being unsure of decisions
• Irritability, sadness, depression
• Unexplained chronic pain
• Changes in eating habits
• Failing to bathe or keep clean
• Having trouble concentrating
• Lack of interest in usual activities
• Difficulty of staying in touch with family or friends
As individuals age, they become more sensitive to alcohol. The body doesn’t metabolize and excrete alcohol as efficiently; this results in higher blood alcohol levels per drink and a longer-lasting intoxication. A man or woman who considered himself or herself a moderate drinker at age 30 or 40, may find that the same amount of alcohol will lead to more serious consequences at a later age.
Another major concern for older individuals is that many take one or more prescription or over-the-counter medications on a daily basis. Mixing these substances with alcohol can either exaggerate or reduce the effects of many medications. Some drugs can also intensify the impact of alcohol.
Individuals are encouraged to read the labels of all medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. Many may think that because medications were taken early in the day, that it is safe to have a glass of two of wine at dinner. This can be misleading as many medications stay in the system for 24 hours.
Records from hospital emergency departments bear out this information with increased reporting of alcohol-related falls. There is also an increase in the level of reported deaths from cirrhosis, with that rate increasing for the first time since the 1960s.
While alcohol use generally declines with age, by 2040 more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over 65 and some experts feel this may put more of a burden on health care services. One recent survey shows that nearly as many seniors are admitted to acute care hospitals for alcohol-related conditions as admissions for heart attacks.
If you have questions about the use of alcohol in conjunction with any of the medications you are using, check the labels and talk to your pharmacist.
Determining the possible abuse of alcohol in a family member, especially one who does not live with you, can be difficult. Be alert to changes in behavior and mood. Help the individual to develop a complete list of all medications along with daily dosing for both prescription and over-the-counter varieties. Also note any alcohol interaction information provided with the medication.
Get the advice of a family physician regarding the use of alcohol with the medications involved. The senior’s physician can be a good ally in helping to assess the possible abuse of alcohol. Sometimes just making an individual aware of the more serious health benefits will be enough to curb alcohol abuse. Often however, habits are difficult to break and a pattern of gradual increased use may be difficult to change. In these situations a treatment program may be necessary.
There are many types of treatments available. Some, such as 12-step help programs, have been around a long time. Others include getting alcohol out of the body (detoxification); taking prescription medicines to help prevent a return to drinking once the individual has stopped; and individual and/or group counseling. Newer programs teach people with drinking problems to learn which situations or feelings trigger the urge to drink as well as ways to cope without alcohol. Because the support of family members is important, many programs also counsel married couples and family members as part of the treatment process. Programs may also link individuals with important community resources.