Alcohol abuse among seniors – a growing trend

The United States and alcohol consumption go hand in hand. Throughout the history of our great country, Americans have struggled to find a healthy balance between reasonable alcohol consumption and the over indulgence of intoxicating beverages. Our forefathers, seeking a new life in America, brought with them a culture of alcohol consumption, and sometimes alcohol abuse. Afterall, European drinking water at that time was considered less sanitary than fermented beverages like wine and beer so Europeans regularly consumed alcohol with meals and as part of their celebrations and recreational activities. Water in barrels or casks aboard ships would often taste horrible and become sour after it developed algae or other impurities. History indicates the amount of beer on the Mayflower surpassed the supply of fresh drinking water and the British Royal Navy provided its sailors a daily rationing or “dram” of liquor until July 31, 1970.

While early Americans believed drunkenness was a sin and a reflection of moral instability, they nonetheless continued to drink alcoholic beverages. Once in America, early colonialists consumed alcohol as part of their normal activities. Alcohol was freely available to nearly every colonialist, even those who were children. At this time in America, every occasion, celebration or illness involved the consumption of alcohol.

It wasn’t until the early temperance movement around 1789 that excessive alcohol consumption and abuse began to receive higher scrutiny. During this period of time, abused women, neglected children and religious leaders all pushed for stronger laws against alcohol abuse. By 1851, Maine had enacted the first prohibition against the consumption and sale of alcohol. In 1910, New York became the first state to enact a law for driving while intoxicated. In 1919, a national prohibition against alcohol consumption was enacted. Thousands of people died as a result of prohibition-related violence and consuming unregulated or homemade alcohol. Some would say the prohibition experiment was repealed because our country had become so entrenched in alcohol consumption that the law was arguably unenforceable.

Fast forward to today, where alcohol consumption is so much a part of our nation that we promote it in nearly every sports venue and we regularly make it a part of daily television and radio advertising. Alcohol consumption is widely accepted in the United States and the consumption of alcohol is on the rise. You can’t swing a jump rope in any American downtown without coming close to hitting a store that sells alcohol or striking a bar, brewery, or restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages. According to thedrinksbusiness.com, American sales of alcohol exceeded $253.8 billion in 2018, an increase of 5.1% or $12.4 billion from the year before.

46.2 million – that was the number of people age 65 and older in the United States on July 1, 2014 according to the United Census Bureau. That number accounts for 14.5% of the total population and it grew from 44.7 million in the 2013 census. As the senior population grows, so grows the number of seniors abusing alcohol. Frederic Blow, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan and a Huss Research Chair on Older Adults thinks baby boomers are more inclined to use drugs and alcohol because they were more exposed to them. He expects to see an increase in their use of drugs and alcohol in the future. Epidemiologists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse confirm Dr. Blow’s findings that more and more seniors are abusing alcohol and that trends indicate the increased consumption will continue into the future. In their study entitled Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers compared the number of drinking adults during a ten-year period with about 40,000 adults studied each time. Their findings were alarming. Subjects over the age of 65 that were studied showed a 22 percent increase over the ten-year period, the largest increase of any age group studied. Dr. Marc Schuckit, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist at the University of California, San Diego, who authored an editorial to the report, when noting that adults aged 65 and older comprised the fastest growing group to engage in high-risk drinking, said “You have to say there’s something going on.” UCLA professor, Dr. Alison Moore, as quoted by aging.com indicates that about 10%-15% of people don’t drink heavily until they are older in age.

As you can imagine, as more and more seniors abuse alcohol, the number of alcohol-related medical concerns increase for our older adults. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence notes that nearly 11% of elderly hospital admissions are due to drug and alcohol related issues. The same source notes that 14% of seniors who present themselves to emergency rooms for medical care are because of alcohol or drug related issues. Of those seniors who are admitted for psychiatric treatment, 20% are due to alcohol or drug related issues.

Seniors who abuse alcohol are at a higher risk of developing medical concerns. Dr. Shuckit notes that older people do not have the muscle mass of younger people, so their liver metabolizes alcohol at a slower pace. Seniors who have chronic diseases will find that their diseases are complicated by alcohol consumption. Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are all exacerbated through alcohol abuse. Alcohol is also considered a contributing factor to a higher risk or stroke and various forms of cancer.
The Alcohol Rehab Guide, an informational publication published by the Delphi Behavioral Health Group (DBHG) notes there are several reasons for alcohol abuse among seniors. It notes the following contributing factors: Empty nest syndrome (when children grow up and move away); Loss of friendships due to moves, health complications or death; Deteriorating health conditions (cardiovascular disease, vision/hearing loss and diabetes); Traumatic events like a spouse’s illness or death; Sadness after downsizing a home; and Boredom from retirement or lack of socialization.”
DBHG professionals suggest if you suspect a senior is abusing alcohol, look for these common signs: Drinking as a way to cope with loss or depression; Consuming alcohol with prescription and over-the-counter medications; Becoming agitated or irritable when they’re sober; Exhibiting signs of drunkenness, such as slurred speech and the smell of alcohol on their breath or clothes; Lying about how many drinks they’ve had; Hiding or stashing liquor bottles where they can’t be found; and Putting themselves or others in danger due to their drinking habits. Still other professionals like those at The Recovery Village, a rehabilitation center in Umatilla, Florida suggest you look for the following: Intoxication at odd times, such as during the day or during important obligations; Brushing teeth at odd times to mask the scent of alcohol on the breath; Secretive behavior meant to downplay or conceal the amount of alcohol consumed; Suspicious, dishonest, or deceitful behavior; Being frequently unreachable; Unexplained scrapes, bruises, or injuries; Uncharacteristic moodiness or inhibition; Difficulty paying attention, forgetfulness, or sleepiness; Loss of interest in usual hobbies or activities; Loss of motivation or energy; Unexplained problems with performance or attendance; Unexplained lateness to events; Unexplained shifts in personality or priorities; Spending more money on alcohol than can be easily spared; and Stealing money or asking for money without explanation.
According to many experts, the number of seniors who abuse alcohol is on the rise. Are substance abusers who are seniors merely a reflection of their increased population, or are more and more of our seniors turning to alcohol to cope with life’s ongoing concerns? Whatever the reason, society should take measures to address the issue as the United Census Bureau predicts there will be 98.2 million people age 65 and older by 2060. Look for symptoms whenever possible to prevent alcohol abuse by seniors.

Todd Miller is a monthly contributor and regularly writes and speaks on various legal topics including bankruptcy, estate planning, probate and elder law. He formed the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC, 1305 Southwest Blvd., Ste. A, Jefferson City, Missouri in 2006 and represents civil, criminal, business and governmental clients. Most recently, he was recognized by the Missouri Bar in its Best of CLE Spotlight for his contribution to educate Missouri lawyers and in 2016, he received the prestigious Adviser of the Year award by GolfInc. Mr. Miller earned his juris doctorate degree from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1999 and graduated with honors from Lincoln University in 1991. You may find him at www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838 or on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.