Positive Aging: Seniors and Alcohol Abuse - Part 2

Marilyn Murray Willison on

In the last column, we discussed the surprising trend of increased drinking among older Americans, as well as the risks that accompany alcohol dependency. We all most likely know someone who has overused alcohol for a long time -- perhaps it's an uncle who always drinks too much at family dinners, or a sorority sister who can't get through the day without multiple glasses of her favorite wine. Because we've seen these people drink too much for so long, we're not surprised when they continue -- or increase -- this behavior once they reach retirement age.

But what can catch many of us off guard is when people who have never professed an enjoyment of alcohol suddenly begin drinking once they become senior citizens. This is known among professionals as "late-onset alcoholism," and there are a variety of reasons why it is on the rise. As we age, we all face major, and often unwelcome, life changes. These upheavals can vary from loss of (or change in) employment, to unexpected health challenges or crises, to the death or loss of family members or friends, the last of which is most likely to "drive someone to drink."

These emotional triggers can explain why your favorite aunt, who always declined the offer of a cocktail or an aperitif, is suddenly asking for a refill. It can also result in seniors drinking by themselves at home to dull the pain of loneliness or loss. Whatever the reason, when older people drink too much, it can cause changes that negatively affect many aspects of their health.

If seniors drink too much over an extended period of time, these serious complications can arise:

--Confusion and/or forgetfulness, which can mimic (or disguise) symptoms of Alzheimer's.

--Brain damage, cancer, immune system disorders and liver damage.


--Health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, memory loss, mood disorders, osteoporosis, strokes and ulcers can become more severe with excess alcohol consumption -- five drinks a day for a man or four drinks a day for a woman.

--Changes in both the heart and blood vessels that can mask the type of pain that would signal a heart attack.

As if those were not reasons enough to keep an eye on the alcohol consumption of the senior citizens in our lives, drinking too much can sometimes have deadly consequences. According to the National Institute on Aging, alcohol is a factor in 30 percent of suicides, 40 percent of burns and car crashes, 50 percent of drownings and murders, and 60 percent of falls.

If you suspect that a friend or family member may be drinking too much, here are some signs that might indicate a problem that needs to be addressed. Does he or she:


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