Positive Aging: Seniors and Alcohol Abuse

Marilyn Murray Willison on

A study in the JAMA Psychiatry journal revealed a surprising health risk among older Americans. Researchers compared data from a national survey of about 40,000 conducted in 2001 and 2002, and again in 2012 and 2013. They found that "high-risk drinking" had increased for every age group, but the greatest increase was among older adults. The number climbed to 3.8%, a 65% increase.

The researchers' definition for high-risk drinking was five or more drinks in a day for a man at least weekly during the previous year, and four drinks for a woman. According to the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the number of seniors who are wrestling with "alcohol use disorder" (alcoholism) has more than doubled in a decade. It now afflicts about 3% of older Americans.

Naturally, researchers are curious about why this uptick in alcohol abuse has occurred within this specific demographic. Some feel that anxiety and financial losses that occurred during the 2008 recession are to blame. Others feel that the baby-boomer generation is less disapproving of drinking and drug use in general. And it's no secret that the death of friends or loved ones can trigger depression, which can result in drinking too much in an effort to combat loneliness or sadness. A drink can seem to soothe ragged emotions at first, but continuing to rely on alcohol can complicate emotional problems, rather than help them.

When it comes to alcohol abuse, researchers try to distinguish between early and late drinking dependency. They are equally harmful, but family, friends and medical professionals need to recognize the reasons behind seniors' drinking too much before they can effectively address the problem.

Most older adults simply don't realize that the two drinks they were accustomed to having each day after work when they were 35 will have a dramatically different effect on their well-being when they are 65. The following are reasons for this increased risk:

--An older drinker's blood alcohol levels will rise higher than a younger drinker's would because they have less muscle mass, and older livers metabolize alcohol more slowly.

--Alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels, which can complicate warning signs of a heart attack.

--Aging brains are more sensitive to alcohol's initial sedative effects.


--Regular alcohol consumption is associated with higher risk for stroke, as well as a variety of different types of cancer.

--Drinking can have a detrimental effect on chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

--According to Dr. David Oslin, who specializes in addiction at the University of Pennsylvania, "Alcohol interferes or interacts with literally hundreds of prescription medications." Reports say the average American over the age of 65 uses 14 different prescriptions.

--The rate of emergency room visits for alcohol-related falls among seniors is on the rise, as are deaths from cirrhosis of the liver.

--Drinking can cause confusion and forgetfulness, which are symptoms of Alzheimer's.


Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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