It’s not just college students who drink in excess. But what are the concerns of doing so as you age?
By Barrett White
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected alcohol use in the ageing population: According to a study by University of Michigan, during the pandemic many older adults (27%) reported a decrease in their alcohol use, 14% reported an increase, and most questioned (59%) had no change in their alcohol use. Additionally, among those who reported drinking for social reasons, 11% increased their drinking during the pandemic.
There was also an association between feelings of loneliness and changes in alcohol use during the pandemic. Older adults who reported a lack of companionship or feeling isolated were more likely to say they increased their alcohol use during the pandemic.
“Anyone at any age can have a drinking problem,” says Susie Loredo, LCSW, addiction and recovery expert at Legacy. “Families, friends, and healthcare workers often overlook their own concerns about the drinking habits of the older people in their lives. And sometimes, trouble with alcohol in older people is mistaken for other conditions related to aging, such as a problem with balance.”
There are many reasons for late-onset drinking. Some, but not all of those reasons may be:
- Chronic pain
- Disability (which may lead to depression and hopelessness)
- Losing a spouse (especially prevalent in men)
Loredo continues, “How the body processes alcohol changes with age. You may have the same drinking habits you’ve always had, but your body has changed.”
According to NIH National Institute on Ageing, at around age 50 your body loses muscle, gains fat, and carries less water in the bloodstream. Because muscle holds more water than fat, this means there’s less water in an ageing body. “Consequently, any amount of alcohol you consume won’t be diluted to the degree that it was when you, say, pounded back beers in your 20s. The result: a higher blood-alcohol content with less alcohol consumption,” Loredo says.
Additionally, AARP also notes that as you age, your stomach and liver don’t produce as much of the alcohol-digesting enzyme called ADH. This leads to a higher blood-alcohol content that’s sustained longer, even if you’re not drinking any more than you did when you were younger. Women have less ADH than men to start with, which is why they are less able than men to clear alcohol from the body.
Drinking alcohol in excess over a long time can lead to some kinds of cancer, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage. Excessive alcohol consumption at this age can also worsen some health conditions that are already prevalent in older adults, like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, risk of stroke, ulcers, memory loss, and mood disorders. This can translate into an acceleration of the aging process in the brain, which can cause some older adults to be become forgetful and often confused. These symptoms could be mistaken for signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
These symptoms of alcohol use masquerading as other ailments can make some actual medical problems hard for doctors to find and treat. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes can dull the pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack.
Loredo also notes that many medicines — prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal remedies — can be dangerous or even deadly when mixed with alcohol. Many older adults take multiple medications, making this a special worry for this age group. If you are taking any medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can safely drink alcohol.
If you are currently struggling with alcohol use, please consult your Legacy physician for a referral to one of our social workers, or consider joining a program near you.