and Alcohol Abuse
Anyone at any age
can have a drinking problem. Great Uncle George may have always been a
heavy drinker--his family may find that as he gets older the problem gets
worse. Grandma Betty may have been a teetotaler all her life, just taking
a drink "to help her get to sleep" after her husband died--now
she needs a couple of drinks to get through the day. These are common
stories. Drinking problems in older people are often neglected by families,
doctors, and the public. [top]
Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol slows down
brain activity. Because alcohol affects alertness, judgment, coordination,
and reaction time--drinking increases the risk of falls and accidents.
Some research has shown that it takes less alcohol to affect older people
than younger ones. Over time, heavy drinking permanently damages the brain
and central nervous system, as well as the liver, heart, kidneys, and
stomach. Alcohol’s effects can make some medical problems hard to diagnose.
For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels that
can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack. It also
can cause forgetfulness and confusion, which can seem like Alzheimer’s
Alcohol, itself a
drug, is often harmful if mixed with prescription or over-the-counter
medicines. This is a special problem for people over 65, because they
are often heavy users of prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs.
Mixing alcohol with
other drugs such as tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain killers, and antihistamines
can be very dangerous, even fatal. For example, aspirin can cause bleeding
in the stomach and intestines; when it is combined with alcohol, the risk
of bleeding is much higher.
As people age, the
body’s ability to absorb and dispose of alcohol and other drugs changes.
Anyone who drinks should check with a doctor or pharmacist about possible
problems with drug and alcohol interactions. [top]
Becomes a Problem Drinker?
There are two types
of problem drinkers--chronic and situational. Chronic abusers have been
heavy drinkers for many years. Although many chronic abusers die by middle
age, some live well into old age. Most older problem drinkers are in this
Other people may develop
a drinking problem late in life, often because of "situational"
factors such as retirement, lowered income, failing health, loneliness,
or the death of friends or loved ones. At first, having a drink brings
relief, but later it can turn into a problem. [top]
How to Recognize a Drinking Problem
Not everyone who drinks
regularly has a drinking problem. You might want to get help if you:
- Drink to calm your
nerves, forget your worries, or reduce depression
- Lose interest in
- Gulp your drinks
- Lie to try to hide
your drinking habits
- Drink alone more
- Hurt yourself,
or someone else, while drinking
- Were drunk more
than three or four times last year
- Need more alcohol
to get "high"
- Feel irritable,
resentful, or unreasonable when you are not drinking
- Have medical, social,
or financial problems caused by drinking
Older problem drinkers
have a very good chance for recovery because once they decide to seek
help, they usually stay with treatment programs. You can begin getting
help by calling your family doctor or clergy member.
Your local health
department or social services agencies can also help. [top]
(AA) is a voluntary fellowship of alcoholics who help themselves and each
other get and stay sober. Check the phone book for a local chapter or
write the national office at: 475 Riverside Drive, 11th Floor, New York,
NY 10115; or call (212) 870-3400.
The National Institute
on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides information on alcohol
abuse and alcoholism. Contact:
6000 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-7003
The National Council
on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. can refer you to treatment services
in your area. Contact:
12 West 21st Street
8th Floor, New York, NY 10010
(800) NCA-CALL (800-622-2255).
The National Institute
on Aging offers a variety of resources on health and aging. Contact:
NIA Information Center
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
(800) 222-2225, TTY (800) 222-4225.