Alcohol use among seniors

According to the NIAAA, alcohol increases the risks for falls and accidents, which can be very serious for people in this age group. It also slows down brain activity, affecting alertness, judgment, coordination and reaction time.

In addition, drinking worsens many medical conditions common in older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers. What’s more, the effects of alcohol can make some medical conditions hard to diagnose. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels and can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack. Alcohol abuse can also mimic Alzheimer’s disease, with its symptoms of confusion and memory loss. Over time, heavy drinking permanently damages the brain and central nervous system as well as the liver, heart, kidneys and stomach.

Finally, the senior age group are the heaviest users of prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs of all population sectors and mixing these substances with alcohol can either exaggerate or reduce the effects of many medications. In turn, drugs can intensify the impact of alcohol. (A good number of medications, in fact, already contain alcohol.)

Be aware that mixing alcohol with drugs such as tranquilizers and sleeping pills, as well as some antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, antihistamines and painkillers, is extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. If you drink, consult with a doctor or pharmacist about potential interaction problems with the drugs you’re taking. And always make sure to check prescription drugs for instructions and warnings about alcohol.

How widespread is problem drinking among seniors?

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 speculate this may put more of a burden on health care services for seniors who are at risk of alcohol abuse. In fact, one survey shows that nearly as many seniors are admitted to acute care hospitals for alcohol-related conditions as admissions for heart attacks. In another large survey, published in 2007, researchers gathered data from almost a dozen hospitals and found that 24 percent of people over 65 binge drank and almost eight percent exceeded the NIAAA guideline for seniors of drinking no more than seven alcoholic beverages in a week. Maricopa County statistics show that one person per day in the county dies from an overdose or interaction of prescribed medication.

Who is most likely to become a problem drinker?

Women, take note: While alcoholism in general is five times as likely to affect men than women, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that women are more likely to become alcoholics later in life. In addition, women do not metabolize alcohol as efficiently as men do, so they are more likely to become dangerously intoxicated. Late-stage complications of alcoholism in women — liver damage, hypertension, anemia, and malnutrition — develop faster and with lower levels of alcohol intake than in men.

Of elderly problem drinkers, two-thirds are “chronic” abusers, or people who have been heavy drinkers for many years. The rest are termed “situational” drinkers, having turned to alcohol later in life in response to significant and often traumatic life conditions.

Sunday and Tuesday evening meetings at 7:00 p.m. Tuscany PebbleCreek AA 602-621-3783.