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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Alcohol abuse carries health risks for people of any age. But seniors can face some additional risks because of their body composition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
Answering “yes” to two or more of these questions could indicate a possible drinking problem.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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.
SAMHSA is a 24/7 national hotline for free and confidential treatment, referrals and information for individuals and families facing substance abuse disorders.