Our bodies and minds change as we age. Recognizing these changes and making positive adjustments is a healthy way to grow older. One significant change is how our bodies react to alcohol. Research suggests that sensitivity to alcohol’s health effects increases with age. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), problems with alcohol and prescription drugs among adults 60 and older is one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country.

Late onset alcoholism or addiction has many contributing factors related to changes that occur later in life. Registered nurse Susan F. Hochstedler, LADC1, in a PowerPoint presentation, states five contributing factors: Metabolism changes, psychosocial, prior heavy alcohol use that stopped due to life’s demands and returns as life’s demands decrease, medical issues, and medications.

Metabolism in the liver slows as we age which causes alcohol and drugs to stay active in the system longer. Furthermore kidney filtration slows as a natural part of aging, which causes reduced water in the system, making alcohol and drugs more potent.

Psychosocial factors that may increase alcohol or drug intake as we age include financial issues, retirement – loss of daily contact with co-workers, caregiver stress – caring for aging parents or loved ones, death of loved ones, and inability to continue living independently.

Some medical factors associated with late onset addiction include menopause, limited mobility, insomnia, acute and chronic medical problems, including chronic pain, and behavioral health issues – depression and anxiety.

Interaction between alcohol and drugs, prescription and over-the-counter, may also be more serious in older adults.

Talking about alcohol and drug problems among older adults is not a popular subject, which makes it difficult to deal with and treat. Some reasons for this, according to NCADD, include health care providers mistaking symptoms for dementia, depression, or other problems common as we age; older adults are less likely to seek help and often hide the problem from loved ones; and many relatives and loved ones of older adults live in denial or are ashamed and choose not to address it.

Not all older people who drink have a problem, however, it is important to your overall health to assess alcohol use and how it may be affecting your health as you age. Decreasing consumption or abstaining may be necessary.

According to Hochstedler there are certain drugs that older people should never mix with alcohol. If you are 60 years of age or older and enjoy a drink every now and again, discuss the possible complications with your doctor. Be honest about your alcohol and drug use (prescription and non-prescription); it may well be impacting your quality of life.

If you or a loved one have questions about drinking or drug use discuss your concerns with your primary care physician or you can call the Discover Program at Addison Gilbert Hospital for more information at 978-283-4001 ext 422. 

Kelly Knox is the development officer of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.

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