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Seniors and Alcohol

Although the use of alcohol and other drugs generally declines as people grow older, problems with alcohol use among older adults (people age 60 and older) pose a health and safety risk for many and a serious concern to their families. As the baby boom generation ages, the problem will loom larger on the social agenda.

Research studies have documented the phenomenon known as "late-onset alcoholism." In one clinical study, at least 41 percent of the people age 65 and over who were enrolled in a Mayo Clinic alcohol treatment program reported that their alcohol problems began after age 60. Data on late-onset alcohol abuse gathered in other studies provides further evidence that one's alcohol consumption may not be consistent across time; some people may increase their consumption as a response to age-related stresses such as the loss of employment, widowhood, or other bereavement.

In addition, the metabolic changes accompanying aging may make people more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. Those who consider themselves moderate drinkers in their early years may find that consuming the dame amount of alcohol leads to trouble, as they grow older. Alcohol problems are often compounded by the use of other drugs. Mixing alcohol with other medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription is a common trap for older Americans-one that can be fatal.

Older adults with alcohol problems often have a high incidence of illnesses not caused by alcohol, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, peptic ulcers, psoriasis, tobacco dependence, organic brain syndrome, affective disorder, and abuse of/dependence on legal prescription drugs. The potential for drug interaction increases with greater reliance on prescription drugs, multiple prescriptions, difficulty in correct self-administration, and age-related bodily physiological changes.

It is difficult for many to accept the idea that senior citizens may abuse alcohol. Many seniors have trouble recognizing their own alcohol problems. The elderly rarely behave in the reckless manner associated with younger problem drinkers. They don't "party," and they are rarely arrested for public intoxication or barroom brawls. Thus, family members often misinterpret alcohol-related problems as depression or age-related bodily changes.

Between two and ten percent of the elderly are affected by alcohol. Health professionals generally believe that the prevalence of alcohol abuse among the elderly is underestimated. A greater number of senior men have identified; however, as in the case of younger women, it is speculated that may senior women may hide their drinking. Alcohol-related problems are a major cause of hospital admission in the elderly. Combining a medication with even a small amount of alcohol may result in a trip to the emergency room.