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Drinking alcohol may pose special risks for seniors, even if they aren’t heavy drinkers.
The potential ill effects of abusing alcohol—including troubled relationships, run-ins with the law and damaged health—are well-documented.
To be sure, those risks don’t change as we age. But seniors tend to face special risks from alcohol, even if they aren’t heavy drinkers.
“Even moderate drinking can be a problem in this age group,” says Alison Moore, MD, a geriatrician at the University of California in Los Angeles whose research focuses on alcohol risks in seniors.
- Health risks of alcohol in aging
Alcohol poses special risks for seniors for a variety of reasons. For example, alcohol can:
Interact with medications. The older we get, the more likely we are to take medications, according to the American Society on Aging. And medicines—whether prescribed by a doctor or bought over the counter—often don’t mix well with alcohol, Dr. Moore notes.
“Alcohol can counteract or decrease the effects of some medications, such as those taken for high blood pressure, reflux disease or gout,” she says.
Alcohol also can magnify a medication’s action. The combined sedative effects of alcohol with tranquilizers, sleeping pills or pain relievers can be particularly dangerous.
Increase the risk of accidents. Alcohol impairs coordination and increases the likelihood of falls and other accidents. For older people, that raises an already increased risk for hip fractures and disability.
Hide other health troubles. Alcohol can mask symptoms of other medical problems, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). For example, the changes it causes in heart and blood vessels may dull the pain of angina—an important warning sign of heart attack.
Cause problems in small amounts. The body’s ability to absorb and deal with alcohol changes as we age, Dr. Moore says. Our tolerance level goes down, meaning it takes little alcohol to have a big effect.
- A diagnosis overlooked
It’s not always easy to know when an older person is abusing alcohol, according to the NIAAA.
They’re often retired, which eliminates occupational red flags like missing work or losing jobs. Older people also are more likely to drink alone at home, according to the American Geriatrics Society. That makes them less likely than younger drinkers to be arrested for fighting or drunk driving.
In addition, some of the side effects of alcohol abuse may be dismissed as signs of getting old. Mental confusion caused by heavy drinking can be mistaken for symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Depression, insomnia and poor eating habits are associated with aging—and alcohol abuse.
So how can you tell if someone you love is abusing alcohol?
“If someone minimizes how much they drink, that’s a red flag,” Dr. Moore says. “If someone takes offense when asked about their drinking, that’s a red flag.”
Other signs may include someone who:
- Drinks alone or hides his or her drinking from others.
- Feels irritable or resentful when he or she is not drinking.
- Uses alcohol to cope with problems like depression or sleeplessness.
To get an idea of whether or not you might have a drinking problem, take this short quiz.
- What you can do
If you think alcohol might be a problem for you or someone you love, seek the advice of a healthcare professional. He or she may suggest counseling or a treatment program.
The good news is that older people tend to stick with treatment programs better than younger people, Dr. Moore says. In fact, her research has found that simply pointing out the ill effects of alcohol can significantly reduce an older person’s drinking.
“A little bit of information and education can go a long way,” she says.