Alcoholism and the Elderly

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse among the elderly is a hidden epidemic that is rarely recognized and is grossly under diagnosed. It is estimated that nearly half of all elderly individuals suffering from alcoholism remain undetected. This is misdiagnosis is caused by two main factors: First, the elderly are a segment of the population that is often ignored; second, doctors focus on secondary ailments such as dementia, depression and insomnia and fail to recognize that these ailments are caused by alcoholism.

Alcoholism Triggers Among the Elderly

Alcoholism among the elderly is classified into two main categories: early onset and late onset. Early onset individuals are those who started drinking at a younger age and have been drinking excessively for many years. These individuals usually sought treatment in the past but were unsuccessful at maintaining sobriety for a variety of reasons. Early onset elderly alcoholics usually have more health problems and psychological damage as a result of their years of alcohol abuse.

Late onset individuals are those who never had a problem with drinking but developed a problem with alcohol later in life in response to unwelcome lifestyle and personal changes. The problem with late onset alcoholism is that it usually goes unrecognized. Triggers of late onset alcoholism among the elderly are:

* Retirement, which results in a loss of structure, self-esteem and income
* Worrying about money
* Loneliness and boredom
* Depression
* Devastating losses, such as the loss of spouses and friends
* Loss of independence
* Lifestyle changes, such as moving into a retirement home, losing driver’s license, etc.
* Declining health
* Chronic pain
* Sleep problems

Health Effects of Alcoholism and the Elderly

Alcoholism affects nearly every organ in the body, and alcohol has a particularly toxic effect on older people. Certain ailments that are common among older people can be worsened by alcohol, including depression and anxiety, cognitive impairment, cirrhosis and other liver diseases, gastrointestinal bleeding, hypertension, irregular heartbeats, osteoporosis, and impaired immunity.

Because a person’s body mass and body water volume reduces with age, even small doses of alcohol can have serious effects on an older person. Elderly individuals become intoxicated faster and stay intoxicated longer, and the health effects can be devastating.

Some common health effects that elderly individuals with alcoholism face are:

* Brain tissue becomes increasingly sensitive to alcohol with age. This sensitivity can cause confusion, memory loss and disorientation. It can also lead to a loss of motor skills that can result in serious or fatal falls.
* Older people often take multiple prescription medications that can have adverse effects when combined with alcohol. It is not uncommon for older people who abuse alcohol to also be abusing or misusing prescription medications.
* Alcohol abuse can exacerbate common health conditions among the elderly, including dementia, cancer, pneumonia, ulcers, muscle atrophy, anemia, and malnutrition.

Signs of Alcoholism and the Elderly

Older individuals will exhibit many of the same symptoms of alcoholism as younger problem drinkers do, but there are some warning signs that are unique to elderly individuals:

* Recurring accidents, injuries or falls
* Unexpected delirium during hospitalization (a sign of withdrawal)
* Withdrawal from family
* Not adhering to medical treatments and appointments
* Unstable or poorly controlled hypertension
* Gastrointestinal problems

Helping an Elderly Alcoholic

Alcoholism is a significant health problem in the elderly population. Unfortunately, elderly alcoholics often go unrecognized by outsiders and often don’t realize they have a problem with alcohol. If you know an older person is suffering from alcoholism or alcohol abuse, it’s important that you encourage treatment. Alcohol treatment is very effective among elderly individuals and can help them live a longer and healthier life. If you are the child of an elderly alcoholic, you might also consider receiving counseling in order to deal with your own issues revolving around your elderly parent’s addiction to alcohol. Call an alcohol treatment center today and get the help you both so desperately need.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.