Anyone at any age can
have a drinking problem. Great Uncle George may have always been a heavy drinker--his
family may find that as he gets older, the problem gets worse. Grandma Betty may have been
a teetotaler all her life, just taking a drink "to help her get to sleep" after
her husband died--now she needs a couple of drinks to get through the day. These are
common stories. Drinking problems in older people are often neglected by families,
doctors, and the public.
Physical Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol slows down brain activity.
Because alcohol affects alertness, judgment, coordination, and reaction time, drinking
increases the risk of falls and accidents. Some research has shown that it takes less
alcohol to affect older people than younger ones. Over time, heavy drinking permanently
damages the brain and central nervous system, as well as the liver, heart, kidneys, and
stomach. Alcohol's effects can make some medical problems hard to diagnose. For example,
alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels that can dull pain that might be a
warning sign of a heart attack. It also can cause forgetfulness and confusion, which can
seem like Alzheimer's disease.
Alcohol, itself a
drug, is often harmful when mixed with prescription or over-the-counter medicines. This is
a special problem for people over 65, because they are often heavy users of prescription
medicines and over-the-counter drugs.
Mixing alcohol with
other drugs such as tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain killers, and antihistamines can be
very dangerous, even fatal. For example, aspirin can cause bleeding in the stomach and
intestines; when aspirin is combined with alcohol, the risk of bleeding is much higher.
As people age, the
body's ability to absorb and dispose of alcohol and other drugs changes. Anyone who drinks
should check with a doctor or pharmacist about possible problems with drug and alcohol
Who Becomes a
There are two types of
problem drinkers--chronic and situational. Chronic abusers have been heavy drinkers for
many years. Although many chronic abusers die by middle age, some live well into old age.
Most older problem drinkers are in this group.
Other people may
develop a drinking problem late in life, often because of "situational" factors
such as retirement, lowered income, failing health, loneliness, or the death of friends or
loved ones. At first, having a drink brings relief, but later it can turn into a problem.
How to Recognize a
Not everyone who
drinks regularly has a drinking problem. You might want to get help if you:
- Drink to calm your
nerves, forget your worries, or reduce depression
- Lose interest in food
- Gulp your drinks down
- Lie or try to hide your
- Drink alone more often
- Hurt yourself, or
someone else, while drinking
- Were drunk more than
three or four times last year
- Need more alcohol to
- Feel irritable,
resentful, or unreasonable when you are not drinking
- Have medical, social,
or financial problems caused by drinking
Older problem drinkers
have a very good chance for recovery because once they decide to seek help, they usually
stay with treatment programs. You can begin getting help by calling your family doctor or
clergy member. Your local health department or social services agencies also can help.
Anonymous (AA) is a voluntary fellowship of alcoholics who help themselves and each
other get and stay sober. Check the phone book for a local chapter or write the national
475 Riverside Drive,
New York, NY 10115; or call
Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides information on alcohol
abuse and alcoholism. Contact:
6000 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-7003
Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., can refer you to treatment services
in your area. Contact:
12 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10010
(800) NCA-CALL (800-622-2255).
Institute on Aging offers a variety of resources on health and aging. Contact:
NIA Information Center
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
(800) 222-2225, TTY (800) 222-4225.
chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your
children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs
free. Learn how
to in Dr. Frischs, Psy.D. Recovery book series.