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Alcohol Abuse in Seniors

Jul 10, 2022

Seniors living alone aren’t the only ones at risk for abusing alcohol. Even those living in community settings, such as nursing homes, can develop a serious drinking problem. Recognizing this kind of substance use in a loved one over the age of 65 is critical in getting them the help they need to get into recovery. 

Older adults experience increased sensitivity to alcohol due to aging. This age group’s signs of alcohol abuse can be medical, including high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Alcohol’s negative interaction with medications also puts seniors at a higher risk for health issues. Dehydration from alcohol abuse can be a factor in the hospitalization of a senior with a drinking problem. Treatment for older adults for alcohol use disorders can include dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders. 

Increased Sensitivity to Alcohol with Aging

Older adults experience a lowered tolerance when drinking alcohol. This change can result in intoxication after smaller amounts of beer, wine, or liquor are consumed. This change also can lead to accidents and injuries after alcohol is consumed. Some factors in the higher sensitivity to alcohol with aging come from less muscle to absorb alcohol, a longer absorption period, and lower amount of water in the body. 

Signs of Alcohol Abuse in Older Adults

Physical signs and the emergence of health conditions can suggest a senior is abusing alcohol. As alcohol lowers the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the development of diabetes can be a sign of alcohol abuse. High blood pressure and the results of it (kidney failure, heart attacks, decreased libido, etc.) can be signs of a senior abusing alcohol, too. Other medical conditions caused by years of heavy drinking may be fatty liver disease and cirrhosis. Alcohol abuse affects the bones as well, and a senior may show signs of osteoporosis or break bones relatively easily. 

Alcohol’s Interactions with Medications

Seniors tend to be more likely to be on daily medications. Mixing alcohol with these medications can lead to health complications. Even over-the-counter products can have negative consequences when taken with an alcoholic beverage. 

  • Anxiety or Depression Medicine: Drinking while on these meds can erase their benefits, while making an older adult more sensitive to alcohol. This combination can also lead to liver damage. 
  • Aspirin: Taking an aspirin with alcohol can strain the stomach, damage the liver, and cause internal bleeding. 
  • Acetaminophen: Regularly drinking while taking acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, can harm the kidneys and liver. Mixing the two can be especially problematic if there’s existing liver damage already.
  • Cold and Allergy Medicine: Mixing alcohol with cold and allergy medicine can make a senior feel very drowsy and create risks for falling or other unsafe outcomes. Cough syrup is another over-the-counter product that intensifies drowsiness when taken with alcohol. 
  • Sleeping Pills: The combination can lead to drowsiness, confusion, and impaired motor skills. The result can be a higher risk of falls, accidents, and injuries. In addition, there’s a potential for an older adult to stop breathing in their sleep. 

Other Negative Effects of Alcohol Abuse in Seniors

Drinking dehydrates the body, and excessive drinking can lead to dehydration requiring hospitalization for a senior. If the drinking leads to vomiting, it can make the dehydration more severe as necessary fluids and electrolytes are lost. Untreated dehydration can lead to other serious consequences, such as seizures, brain swelling, coma, and death. 

Memory loss can be a sign of alcohol abuse in older adults. Mood disorders, including depression, can appear as well. If a senior abusing alcohol already experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety, those symptoms can become more severe. 

Helping a Senior Start Treatment for an Alcohol Use Disorder

An older adult can receive treatment for alcohol abuse to help them get on the road to recovery. A medical detox is a recommended first step in this process. Once their body has safely moved through withdrawal, a customized program to meet their physical, mental health, and lifestyle needs is the next step. Age-specific treatment is beneficial to older adults as they have experienced different life stages than their younger counterparts and can relate better to peers their own age. Family sessions can be integrated throughout treatment to ensure adequate support is available once the senior has completed a program. Continuing care should be a part of the recovery conversations early on to facilitate a sustainable recovery journey. 

Hanley Center is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting recovery.

For information on our programs, call us today: 561-841-1033.

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