senior woman with glass of wine

 

It’s normal to raise a glass to toast to celebrate big milestones in life, including weddings, promotions and also when retirement rolls around. For most people, a drink or two of celebratory wine or champagne won't lead to a lifetime of alcoholism, but a recent study by the National Institutes of Health suggests that alcohol abuse in adults over 60 is a very real issue that tends to worsen with age.

Known as geriatric alcoholism, this habit may have a number of different causes, and understanding these contributing factors now may help people keep themselves and their aging relatives safer and healthier in the long run.

 

Research Reveals Geriatric Alcoholism Trend

The Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research and the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics and research and analytical services firm CSR, Inc. conducted a study to determine gender-specific trends in alcohol consumption among adults aged 60 and over. They examined changes in habits each year from 1997 to 2014  and analyzed the data while accounting for differences in age and birth years.

Their results were clear: as the years progressed, alcohol abuse in older adults tended to increase. The findings were particularly significant among women, and showed that while the volume remained stable, women were likelier to binge drink more each year by 3.7 percent. Men showed a similar pattern of increasing how often they drank, though with a lower increase of 0.7 percent per year.

 

Defining Alcohol Abuse

Before you can fully identify alcohol abuse in older adults, it’s important to understand what alcohol abuse means. The NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, or NIAAA, defines binge drinking as any manner of drinking that raises blood alcohol concentration to or above 0.08 g/dl. This means four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

One sign of geriatric alcoholism can include the consistent consumption of more than five alcoholic drinks in a single day. The risk of abuse appears to be lower for people who have less than three drinks in a day and less than 14 drinks in a week.

 

Risk Factors for Alcoholism

Just because an older person drinks occasionally doesn’t mean he or she has an alcohol abuse problem, but The Mayo Clinic notes that there are some key risk factors that can exacerbate the problem:
  • Society and culture. It’s easier to fall into a drinking habit if your friends, spouse, coworkers or loved ones are also doing it. The glamorous portrayal of drinking in movies and television can also make alcohol more enticing.
  • Steady drinking habit. Alcohol abuse in older adults could also be linked to drinking regularly over a lifetime or an extended period of time.
  • Family history. Anyone with a family member who suffered from alcoholism may be at risk for abusing it, too.
  • The most frequent use of alcohol appears to occur in the 20s and 30s, but alcoholism can show up at any age.
  • Depression and mental health disorders. Individuals suffering from disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder may be at higher risk of abusing alcohol.
 

Triggers

When examining why alcohol abuse in older adults seems to be such a problem, retirement may play a factor, although it’s certainly not the only trigger.

“Typically, a major life change like retirement, movement to a fixed income, spousal death and the lifestyle changes that follow, divorce, or a health condition that impacts their ability to do things they used to easily do” can all be triggers that may cause an older adult to start drinking or to drink more heavily, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based clinical psychologist and clinical director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services.

The nature or circumstances of a retirement itself can also play a major role. For example, if an older adult is forced into retirement and lacks the skills to cope with this major life change, he or she may turn to alcohol.

Some doctors cite feeling depressed and purposeless and as if they’re a strain on the people around them as a reason for alcohol abuse among older adults. Those at highest risk may be people who must take an early retirement.

The good news is that many doctors also believe that awareness is key to helping to prevent alcohol abuse among seniors. If the doctor, elderly individual and loved ones can spot the problem and take action to address it, the odds of developing alcohol abuse in older adults might be lower.

Getting Help

There are many options for getting help, but the first step is identifying geriatric alcoholism. Actions are likely to have a great effect if the at-risk person understands that there is a problem and wants to change.

However, it’s also crucial that the older person’s loved ones do their part to identify the problem and provide support.

“The challenge with aging and elderly adults seeking help for substance abuse is that their families generally support their drinking. 'Grandma’s taking her comfort after Grandpa died' is a common expression among family members,” says Constance Scharff, Ph.D., Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu, a renowned drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

Elderly adults may also become obstinate when confronted about their drinking and may feel that their independence is being challenged, Scharff notes. “We have to be open and honest, letting our loved ones know that their substance misuse is causing concern. With an attitude of helpfulness and support, we can make a lot of progress,” she says.

If alcohol abuse in older adults occurs at a long-term care facility, it’s a good idea for family members to confer with facility staff to ensure that their loved one has access to appropriate resources.

It’s also worth noting that seniors who experience a positive transition from working life to retirement and find new purpose with their free time tend to be at lower risk for late onset alcoholism.

If you or an older adult you know is struggling with alcohol abuse, it's important to talk to a doctor about the problem. The following organizations can also help you find local assistance: