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What to do if itís Alcoholism

Not so long ago, the common thinking was that if you werenít an alcoholic by age 45, youíd be unlikely ever to become one. But that thinking has changed. Experts in the fields of alcoholism and addiction now know that these conditions can develop at any time in life.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse says that for people 65 and older, no more than one drink per day would be considered moderate. And most experts agree that anything more than moderate drinking is problematic.

But the life changes that many seniors experience cause some people to start drinking too much. Losing spouses and close friends, having a spouse who develops a disability or even just retiring can trigger a response to drink too much. For some, itís the isolation of retirement that leads to drinking. For others, itís the social life in retirement communities, which often centers around having drinks before, during and after dinner.

Hey, donít I deserve to have a good time?
Nobody wants to deny seniors any fun in their old age. But the fact is that drinking too much alcohol isnít good for anybody. And it affects older people in ways that it doesnít affect younger people. For example:

  • Alcohol consumption leads to an increase in hip fractures in the elderly. There are two reasons for this. First, youíre more likely to fall when youíre intoxicated. Second, elderly people who are alcoholics tend to have less bone mass than elderly non-alcoholics, which makes it easier for bones to break.
  • Traffic accidents caused by alcohol are important causes of death for people of all age groups. But older drivers tend to be more seriously injured than younger drivers in similar types of crashes.
  • According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the average person age 65 or older takes 2 to 7 medications per day. Common changes related to aging make alcohol-medication interactions more serious and often decrease the effectiveness of the drugs.
  • People who are over 65 and who are alcoholics tend to have more problems with depression than those who are not alcoholics.

Signs that an older person is drinking too much
Younger alcoholics may have financial or legal problems that could lead friends or family to suspect alcoholism. For older people, the signs are different. What should you look for if you think an older friend or family member is drinking too much?

  • Bumps and bruises caused by falling 
  • Poor attention to personal hygiene and grooming
  • Problems with relationships with family and friends

Alcoholism often undetected in the elderly
The common problems of aging can make it difficult for doctors and other healthcare providers to diagnose alcoholism in their elderly patients. Frequent falls, poor nutrition, depression and difficulty sleeping are indications that alcoholism may be present, but these symptoms also occur in many non-alcoholic older patients as well.

Additionally, questions developed to detect alcoholism in the population at large may not be the best way to detect the condition in older people. For example, one of the questions doctors might ask patients is whether drinking alcohol is interfering with their ability to perform a job. But older people often no longer have jobs. Another question doctors ask is whether drinking alcohol has caused a patient to give up social activities. Here again, itís common for many older people to spend less time socializing with others.

Older alcoholics need treatment, just like everyone else
Itís important for older alcoholics to get treatment for the condition. If you think you have a problem yourself, telling your doctor about it is a good place to start. Your doctor can assess your personal situation and determine what kind of treatment youíll need, if in fact drinking is a problem.

If you think an older family member is an alcoholic, you can play an important role in their recovery. Talk with a doctor or perhaps a social worker about your suspicions. If itís suggested that family members should take part in some kind of discussion with the relative they suspect is an alcoholic, itís important to do so. Talk with the doctor, social worker and other healthcare providers about how you can provide support in each stage of recovery. Your help is crucial at this time.

American Family Physician, 15 March 2003; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; P. Peck, UPI Science News, 16 July 2003

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