Alcoholism in the over 65’s – A New Worrying Trend

Alcoholism or alcohol abuse is something that’s most often associated with younger or perhaps middle-aged adults. In fact, alcoholism amongst the older generations is something that is quite often hidden or even overlooked. One of the reasons for this is because, as we get older, we naturally become less social and a lot of older people’s social circles are naturally declining. Furthermore, doctors may miss the signs of alcoholism in the elderly as they are often similar to some of the natural signs of aging, such as trouble sleeping, depression or memory difficulties.

The Extent of Alcoholism in the Over 65s

Research has shown that 6-11% of elderly people that are admitted to hospital showed signs of alcoholism, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. This figure increases to 20% when talking about admissions to psychiatric units.

Early-onset and Late-onset Alcoholism

Essentially, there are two categories of alcoholism in the over 65s: those who have what’s called “early-onset alcoholism” and those who have “late-onset alcoholism”.

Early-onset alcoholism describes people who have a pattern of alcoholism that began when they were much younger or that they have had for most of their adult life. These people more often than not have poor relationships with their family and may have family members who have been prone to alcohol abuse. Furthermore, this category have often suffered some sort of socioeconomic decline. Of all elderly people who suffer from alcoholism, three quarters of them belong in this category, according to the experts.

Those who fall into the late-onset alcoholism category begin drinking much later in their lives. Their relationship with alcohol usually starts in their 40s or 50s. A lot of this group fall into the highly educated groups and have gained a higher than average socioeconomic status. Most of these people suffer alcoholism due to experiencing a traumatic event or from having a difficult time. It is the later-onset alcoholism that has been deemed a ‘worrying trend’

The Effects of Retirement

Many people look forward to the day they retire. It’s one of life’s major events as far as a person is concerned. They give up their work, which for some is a big part of their identity. Quite often, retirement is a hard transition for the over 65s. This takes its toll and is often a causal factor in late-onset alcoholism. The older generations can suddenly experience feelings of loneliness or boredom and can even feel like their life lacks meaning or purpose. Such negative feelings often add to and exacerbate alcohol consumption.

Bereavement

Elderly alcoholic

Getting older has many downsides and one of these is losing those that we love. Of course, death and dying can occur at any age but by the time we reach our mid-sixties we are often saying goodbye to lifelong friends, very elderly parents (if we haven’t already) and possibly even a spouse. These bereavements can all add to the likelihood of someone becoming dependent on alcohol later in life. Alcohol is a known for its numbing properties. It helps relieve pain, to calm down our emotions and even allows people to experience a sense of happiness, albeit in the short term. In this way, the elderly (like the rest of us) try to forget about their sadness and their troubles, trying to numb the pain that they are suffering.

What to look for if you Suspect an Older Person is suffering from Alcoholism

The elderly are no less prone to lying about their alcohol consumption than the rest of the population so sometimes it’s wise to look for signs in your loved ones that their relationship with alcohol has perhaps become problematic. The signs and symptoms of alcoholism are not that different in an elderly person than they are in any adult. However, age can often make some symptoms more pronounced, such as them having more gaps in their memory.

Elderly people often bruise more easily than younger people so watch out for unexplained bruises. They might become more confused or suffer from anxiety or depression and begin to neglect their diet, pets and appearance. Likewise, household chores and paying bills may become less of a priority. Sometimes, these symptoms are confused for those generally associated with old age so it’s easier to miss.

With increasing age, alcohol can have even greater effects and drinking it can do even more damage than it does for younger people due to the diminished ratio of water in the body compared with body fat. Therefore it is all the more important to look further if you do suspect that someone you know is suffering from alcoholism in older age.

The Dangers of Alcohol Abuse

The dangers of drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis have been well documented. However, many people wrongly presume that their own alcohol consumption is not a problem or they grossly underestimate just how much they are drinking.

The NHS and WHO both agree than consuming more than 14 units of alcohol every week means that you risk damaging your health and this risk grows the more you drink. Fourteen units is actually the equivalent of just six regular-strength pints of beer or lager or ten small glasses of low-strength wine. This, for some, might not seem like a lot at all. Furthermore, these units should not be consumed all in one go, but spread throughout the week. A binge of ten units can be much more harmful than 14 units spread over seven days.

So what exactly are the risks of alcohol abuse?

Low Risk Drinking

If you regularly drink less than the 14 recommended units a week then you are classed as a low-risk drinker. It’s ‘low risk’ rather than ‘safe’ because actually, there is no safe drinking level. Alcohol is a type one carcinogen and any drinking will increase your risk of cancers and other diseases.

Higher Risk Drinking

If you regularly exceed the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week you increase your risk of contracting diseases dramatically. Such diseases include cancers of the throat, mouth, stomach and breast as well as liver disease, heart disease, strokes, brain damage and nervous system damage. The more you drink, the greater your risk.

Binge Drinking or ‘Single Session’ Drinking

Binge drinking brings its own risks as drinking too much too quickly increases the risks of injuries and accidents, which can even cause death. Furthermore, those who’ve been on a binge are much more likely to misjudge risky situations and lose control, such as putting themselves in danger or by having unprotected sex.

Aside from these less-physical risks associated with binge drinking, there are the health-related ones too. Drinking on a binge greatly increases the risks to your health. Binge drinkers are often hospitalised due to their single session drinking due to acute alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol abuse

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Drinking heavily over a long period of time takes its toll on the body. The organs in the body become damaged, like the brain, heart, pancreas and liver. Drinking large amounts regularly also increases your blood pressure as well as your cholesterol and these are both pre-causal factors for heart attacks and strokes. Furthermore, long-term alcohol misuse weakens the immune system, meaning that you are more at risk of infections and more prone to fractures to due increased bone weakness.

Sexual problems are also on the increase correlated with the amount of alcohol drunk and this includes infertility. Mental health doesn’t escape from the effects of long-term alcohol abuse either. Depression and even dementia are much more likely if you drink heavily over a long period of time. In fact, drinking alcohol is considered to be the biggest risk to life after smoking and obesity. It’s a causal factor in at least 60 medical conditions.

How Widespread is The Problem?

I am sure that most of us know or have known a “problem drinker”, or maybe you are recognising that you, yourself, are the problem drinker. But, just how does widespread alcohol abuse affect us? The statistics suggest that 10.8 million adults in England alone are drinking at a level that poses risks to their health. That’s a huge number! Another estimate is that 1.6 million of us have some dependence on alcohol.

Most of us know what the dangers of alcohol abuse are but unfortunately not all of us are listening. The NHS and other organisations such as Drink Aware are working hard to reduce the numbers that are succumbing to alcohol abuse each year but there is still a lot to do before alcohol abuse becomes a minor problem to the UK’s health rather than a leading cause of illness and death.