Alcohol Use and Abuse

Anyone at any age can have a drinking problem. Rachel takes a fifth of whiskey to her mother every 2 weeks. Rachel’s mother Mary admits that she drinks a few each evening to help her get to sleep. This is common. Families, friends, and health care professionals often overlook their concerns about older people’s drinking. Sometimes trouble with alcohol in older people is mistaken for other conditions that happen with age.

The aging body does not handle alcohol the same way. The same amount of alcohol can have a greater effect as a person grows older. Some research has shown that as people age they become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects. High blood pressure, ulcers, and diabetes can worsen with alcohol use. Many medicines—both prescription and over-the-counter—can be dangerous or even deadly when mixed with alcohol.

This is a special worry for older people because the average person over age 65 takes at least two medicines a day. Aspirin can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines. If a person takes aspirin while drinking alcohol, the risk of bleeding is much higher. Cold and allergy medicines (antihistamines) often make people sleepy. When alcohol is combined with those medicines, it can make drowsiness worse and driving even more dangerous. Alcohol used with large doses of the pain killer acetaminophen can raise the risk of liver damage. If your loved one is taking any over-the-counter or prescription medications, ask the doctor or pharmacist if its safe to drink alcohol.

Even drinking a small amount of alcohol can impair judgment, coordination, and reaction time. It can increase the risk of work and household accidents, including falls and hip fractures. It also adds to the risk of car crashes— a special concern because almost 10 percent of this nation’s drivers are over age 65. Heavy drinking over time also can cause certain cancers, liver cirrhosis, immune system disorders, and brain damage.

Alcohol can make some medical concerns hard for doctors to find and treat. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack. Drinking also can make older people forgetful and confused. These symptoms could be mistaken for signs of Alzheimer’s disease. For people with diabetes, drinking affects blood sugar levels. Ulcers also may become worse with alcohol use.

Studies show that older problem drinkers are as able to benefit from treatment as are younger alcohol abusers. To get help, talk to the doctor. He or she can give you advice about your loved one’s health, drinking, and treatment options. Your local health department or social services agencies can also help. 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 sober, 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.

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