How Alcohol Problems Can Get Worse With Age

By May Wilkerson 08/26/15

Alcohol and prescription drug abuse of people over 60 is a rapidly growing problem.

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Our bodies and minds change with age, and this includes how we handle alcohol and its effect on our health.

New research finds that older adults may be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol on health. Abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs among adults aged 60 and up is one of the fastest growing problems in the U.S., according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).

There are many factors that can contribute to late onset alcoholism or addiction, said registered nurse Susan F. Hochstedler. These include changes in metabolism, psychosocial factors, medical issues, past heavy alcohol use that was stopped and then returned due to life stresses, and mixing medications.

She explained that metabolism in the liver slows down as we get older, which can cause alcohol and drugs to stay active in the system for longer. Kidney filtration also slows with aging, which means less water in the body, increasing the effects of drugs or alcohol.

Psychosocial factors that can contribute to increased alcohol or drug use in older adults may include financial strains, life stress brought on by retirement, death of friends or family members, and being unable to live independently.

Medical issues like menopause, limited mobility, sleeping problems, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety are all common among older people, and may contribute to substance use. Co-current use of alcohol and prescription or over-the-counter drugs can also cause problems for this population.

Many older adults find it difficult to discuss drug and alcohol problems due to fear or shame, according to NCADD, and they may be less likely to seek help. As a result, health-care providers may mistake their symptoms for problems like dementia, depression, or other medical issues associated with aging.

Hochstedler urges older adults to be aware that certain medications should never be combined with alcohol. Though drinking is not necessarily a problem, she recommends people age 60 and older discuss possible complications with a doctor.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.