Alcohol Abuse & Seniors 2019-2020

National and local programs to help older adults and their loved ones get help for substance abuse

Though it may come as a surprise to some, senior citizens are the age group with the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States. 

In the last 10 years, alcohol consumption among people over age 65 has increased faster than any other age group.

Widowers over the age of 75, specifically, have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.1

What causes senior adults to abuse alcohol? What additional health risks are involved with alcohol as adults get older?

And most importantly, where can older adults and their loved ones turn for help?

This guide attempts to answer these questions and provides a list of national alcoholism treatment resources and a state by-state resource guide for seniors who are struggling with alcohol abuse. 

The Prevalence of Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors

While alcohol consumption is often associated with younger adults — and while younger people remain far more likely to consume alcohol — “alcohol use disorders” are in fact most prevalent in older adults.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Up to 11% of inpatient hospital admissions among the elderly are drug- or alcohol-related.2

  • Each year, nearly 21,000 people age 65 and older die as a result of heavy alcohol consumption or binge drinking.3

  • The rate of “high-risk drinking” among seniors has shot up 65% in the past decade and now accounts for almost 4% of the entire senior population.1

  • 10-15% of people do not drink heavily until they are in older age.2

  • Nearly 50% of seniors living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities have alcohol-related health problems.2

While men in general are five times more likely to develop a problem with alcoholism than women, women are more likely to develop an alcohol abuse problem during a later stage of life.4

With the Baby Boomer generation aging into retirement, the prevalence of alcohol abuse among senior adults will likely continue to remain a prominent health issue.

What Causes Older Adults to Abuse Alcohol?

There are a number of reasons why a person may begin abusing alcohol later in life.

Two of the common root causes for alcoholism and substance abuse include loneliness or depression, which can be caused by: 

  • Empty nest syndrome once children have grown and moved out of the house
  • Losing a spouse or close friends
  • Retiring and feeling of bored, useless or lacking self-worth
  • Relocating into a downsized home or nursing home, especially if the person lived in their home for many years
  • Declining mental or physical health

Seniors may also turn to alcohol during times of financial stress, or perhaps when they find it increasingly difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.  

The Risks That Alcohol Abuse Poses to Baby Boomers

Alcohol abuse carries health risks for people of any age. But seniors can face some additional risks because of their body composition. 

  • Older adults typically have less muscle to help absorb alcohol, which makes alcohol hit the bloodstream quicker and more intensely, which enhances inebriation and the associated effects on health.

  • An older body typically takes longer to digest alcohol, which means certain damaging toxins remain in organs for a longer period of time. 

  • Senior adults may live alone or have fewer friends or family nearby to check in and monitor their wellbeing. This can increase the dangers associated with becoming intoxicated in isolation. 

Experts define risky drinking for those age 65 and over as more than seven drinks in a week or more than three drinks in a day. These thresholds are lower than they are for younger adults because of the increased risks involved.

Here are some of the added risks that seniors face with excessive alcohol consumption.   

Dehydration

The body of an older adult is made up of less water than that of a younger person.

Alcohol contributes to dehydration, and having less water in the body to curb that effect leads seniors to become more easily dehydrated when they consume excessive amounts of alcohol. 

Falls

Older adults typically face deteriorating balance, so they are at an increased risk of falls when intoxicated.

To make matters worse, an older body is more fragile and has weaker and thinner bones, which can make the consequences of a fall even more dangerous. 

Memory loss or impairment

Brain activity tends to slow as adults get older, which can lead to natural memory issues.

When the effects of alcohol are added, seniors can more easily reach the point of memory loss or confusion, which can impair decision-making and lead to dangerous situations. 

Mood disorders

Some seniors may increasingly suffer from loneliness, depression and anxiety and can become frustrated as daily life becomes more difficult to navigate.

Alcohol has a way of intensifying a person’s emotions and can worsen mood disorders among older adults. 

Interactions with medicine

Older adults typically take more prescription medication than other age groups, and these medications can have dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol.

Even over-the-counter medicines such as Aspirin and cough syrup can be dangerous when mixed with excessive amounts of alcohol. 

How Alcohol Increases Risks of Health Problems for Seniors

Alcohol abuse doesn’t just cause new health problems for older adults.

It can also exacerbate existing issues or increase the odds of developing an age-related condition for which someone may already be at risk. 

  • Alcohol can make the body less sensitive to insulin, which can increase the chance of developing diabetes. Alcohol also affects the way the liver processes sugar.

  • Drinking alcohol can cause your blood pressure to rise in both the immediate and long-term. This raises the risk of a stroke or heart attack.

  • Alcohol can cause bones to wither and can accelerate the development of osteoporosis.

How to Detect Alcohol Abuse Issues in Older Adults

Alcoholism can be difficult to detect in older adults because they often have less interaction with people.

Some seniors may no longer work or go out socializing. They may live far away from family. And in some instances, their spouse and close friends may have passed away. 

Symptoms of alcohol abuse can also be masked or dismissed because of a person’s age. In fact, studies have shown that older people are less likely to receive an initial diagnosis of alcoholism than younger people.5

Some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse among seniors include:

  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, activities and socializing 
  • Drinking despite specific warnings not to from doctors or medication labels
  • Changes in personal appearance that include sudden weight gain or loss or a lack of personal hygiene 
  • Untidiness around the home that is uncharacteristic for the person
  • Changes in mood and demeanor, particularly depression and hostility

You can also look for the usual signs of alcohol abuse such as slurred speech, an odor of alcohol on the breath and an abundance of empty cans or bottles around the house. 

A commonly used set of questions to determine if a senior may have an alcohol abuse problems is the “CAGE” test:

  1. Have you ever felt that you should Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have you been Annoyed by people criticizing your drinking or asking you to cut back?
  3. Have you felt Guilty about your drinking?
  4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (an “Eye opener”)?  

Answering “yes” to two or more of these questions could indicate a possible drinking problem.

Does Medicare Cover Alcoholism or Substance Abuse Treatment?

Tens of millions of seniors rely on Medicare for their health insurance. Medicare Part B (medical insurance) provides coverage for an alcohol misuse screening one time per year for seniors who use alcohol but do not meet the criteria for alcohol dependency. 

If a doctor determines that you are misusing alcohol, you can have up to four in-person counseling sessions per year covered by Medicare.

As long as the health care provider who administers your alcohol abuse counseling accepts Medicare assignment, you will pay nothing for the service.

What Can You Do to Help a Loved One Facing Alcohol Abuse?

If you suspect an older adult you know may be struggling with a drinking problem, it can be beneficial – though difficult ­­– to have a conversation with them about the issue.

An intervention staged with the help of a professional alcohol counselor can prove extremely effective at convincing a person to accept help. 

The recovery process is different for every individual, and the type and length of counseling program can depend on a number of variables.

The first step is to reach out. The national and state resources listed below can help your loved one regain the stability and happiness they deserve during their golden years. 

National Resources

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

The most well-known resource for alcoholism treatment utilizes a 12-step program for recovery. AA has chapters located all over the U.S. and even internationally. 

Al-Anon

Al-Anon is a support group designed for the family members and close friends of alcoholics. Al-Anon can be a good resource for learning how to cope with a loved one’s drinking. 

SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery allows people suffering from alcohol addiction to access around-the-clock chat rooms, message boards and online meetings. There are also face-to-face meetings available all around the world. 

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)

Secular Organizations for Sobriety offers meetings similar to Alcoholics Anonymous in cities all over the U.S., along with online groups. The group takes a secular, or non-religious, approach to recovery. 

Centerstone

Centerstone provides educational resources about alcohol abuse and treatment that are backed by statistics and research studies. They provide toolkits, fact sheets and videos about recognizing drinking problems. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

SAMHSA is a 24/7 national hotline for free and confidential treatment, referrals and information for individuals and families facing substance abuse disorders.