Alcohol abuse among the elderly is a widespread problem through the United States. It is hard to discover by physicians and medical providers, because many of these people have been abusing alcohol secretly for years. The population is extremely unlikely to admit that they have problems with alcohol, especially during a routine health care visit. As many as 15% of the population over 65 may be heavy drinkers, although this number is hard to pin down.
Elderly people usually drink due to depression, loneliness and lack of social support. Most alcohol abuse comes from a lifetime history; whereas others develop alcoholic drinking patterns later in life.
Alcoholism accounts for more than 15% of health care costs in the elderly. It is associated with an estimated 100,000 deaths per year in the United States. Alcohol consumption can produce both benefits and risks. In terms of benefits, men who drink two to six alcoholic beverages per week have decreased mortality rates and lower cardiovascular disease when compared with abstainers. On the negative side, two studies of 300,000 men demonstrated increased mortality among those consuming more than 2 to 3 drinks daily. Women, are more affected by less alcohol than men, perhaps because they have a lower blood volume, and so it's distribution and decreased activity for gastric alcohol dehydrogenase are increased.
The primary care physician plays an important role in making the diagnosis and in helping the older alcoholic receive proper medical and psychological care.
As patients grow older, and develop conditions that require prescription and over the counter medications, opportunities for dangerous alcohol/drug interactions increase. Elderly patients should be encouraged to monitor their alcohol intake so that it does not conflict with their medications.
When a problem is identified, begin by counseling patients and the family. Increased social support may be all that is needed to stop excessive alcohol consumption by some older patients.
Butler, Robert (June, 1998) Alcoholism and the later years. Geriatrics pg. 1-2.