Health Effects of Alcohol and Aging for Seniors

November 18, 2021
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Enjoying an alcoholic beverage is great in moderation. You can enjoy a glass of wine at dinner or a nice cold beer when watching the sports game with friends. Drinking only becomes a problem when you rely on it to get through the day or feel like you are incomplete without a beverage. Alcohol abuse is more common in seniors, as it may be helpful when coping with isolation and loneliness when living at home. 

However, alcohol abuse is not reserved solely for young adults. Seniors over 65 often find themselves drinking more because they are now spending more time alone or need something to fill the time with. Substance abuse is a serious matter that affects many older adults living at home and those living in assisted care facilities. 

What happens if you suspect alcohol abuse in yourself or in a loved one? Approaching this subject can be difficult and emotional. It requires patience, understanding, and self-reflection. Avoid making confrontational accusations by using this checklist to see if you or your loved one fall into the criteria for alcohol abuse and addiction.

Drinking to Cope with Isolation

More older adults are living at home independently without constant care from a family member, friends, neighbours or a companion. Advances in technology allow seniors to be in close contact with loved ones without having to risk their health and safety. Video chats on Skype and Zoom bring families together while eliminating the need for travel. Texting and messenger apps allow us to send quick messages and voice notes to friends, and allow them to reply back on their own time. 

While online contact is great, it can fail to fill the void of loneliness and need for companionship in some seniors. Talking to a screen is different than talking to someone in person. It is difficult to read body language, micro-expressions, or tell the difference in context between sarcasm or a joke. Talking to friends and family online can also lead to Zoom fatigue. Zoom fatigue happens when you feel tired or burnout from constantly communicating online, without clear boundaries for when you are offline. 

Mental Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse in Seniors

Excessive drinking or alcohol abuse can lead to damaging mental health effects in seniors. You may feel more irritable in your daily life, or more annoyed than usual for no reason. You may spiral into depressive thoughts and feel sad when you are without a drink. This can cause seniors to stay at home and refuse the help of loved ones, even if they are aware they may have an alcohol problem. Here are common mental health effects of excessive drinking in seniors:

Alcohol abuse can cause older adults to feel confused or disoriented. This can be dangerous and lead to accidental falls. Feeling disoriented contributes to bad balance and poor coordination, leaving you more likely to trip on household items or fall on the front door steps. 25% of seniors over 65 falls every year, and 1 out of every 5 senior falls results in a serious injury such as broken bones. 

You may experience memory loss as a result from excessive drinking. You may find it extremely difficult to remember what you did yesterday, who you were with, or forget what your plans for the day were. You may be embarrassed about your alcohol consumption, and feel compelled to lie. This can cause you and your close circle to drift apart if you keep the truth from them for too long. 

Social Isolation for Older Adults Living at Home

Seniors with alcohol abuse problems often have other issues that force them to cope with excessive consumption. Many older adults struggle with isolation and feeling lonely at home. They may be empty-nesters or newly retired individuals who miss the busy lifestyle they once had. Others may be used to living at home independently, but feel bored without hobbies to turn to or friends to call. Alcohol abuse can lead to distancing yourself away from your close social circles, feeling unmotivated to maintain your hygiene, or unwillingness to complete your household chores chores. 

Health Effects of Alcohol and Aging

Older adults have increased sensitivity to alcohol. Muscle mass and bone mass deteriorates in old age, affecting the metabolic rate that your body processes alcohol. Muscle is replaced by fat, which absorbs less alcohol than muscle. As a result, more alcohol flows through your blood and can make you feel tipsy a lot quicker. This contributes to a higher blood alcohol concentration level (BAC) in your system, which measures the level of intoxication. The effects of alcohol consumption in seniors includes

  • Mixing substances
  • Dehydration
  • Sleeping problems
  • Poor coordination and balance

If you are taking medication, excessive alcohol consumption can alter or deter the strength and effectiveness of your prescription. Excessive drinking can also damage your vital organs due to the increased load of toxins they need to process. In most cases, medical professionals advise against mixing substances. As your body ages, it requires more time and energy to digest anything you consume, leaving you feeling uncomfortable or lethargic for a longer period of time. 

Dehydration and Loss of Appetite in Seniors

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to increased dehydration in seniors. Oftentimes, older adults avoid drinking a lot of water or liquids before heading out because they fear they will not have a washroom nearby. Consuming alcoholic beverages without balancing it with adequate water consumption can leave you feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or with a headache. To combat this, make sure to drink water when you return home to stay hydrated. This is especially important in the summer or if you live in a warm climate. Being outside on a sunny afternoon can lead to perspiration, causing you to lose more fluids than normal and speed up dehydration. 

  • Dehydration can lead to headaches, dizziness, or lightheadedness—making you more likely to accidentally fall or trip when walking
  • Do not drive when you are intoxicated—call a friend or driver who can help you get back home safely
  • Call a companion to accompany you to social events as a extra precaution to ensure you get home safely

Increased alcohol consumption can lead to sleeping problems. Many seniors are unable to sleep throughout the entire night without needing to get up to use the bathroom. Finding a comfortable position to sleep in can also be a challenge. Excessive drinking can lead to restlessness at night and make it harder to fall asleep. You may also find that you have a worse quality of sleep and wake up feeling tired instead of refreshed. Grogginess can impact your focus and concentration, making you more prone to accidental falls

Excessive drinking also leads to loss of appetite or stomach issues in the elderly. Your body takes longer to process food and toxins, as the organs like the liver and kidneys require more energy and time. You may experience sudden weight gain or weight fluctuations as a result. Alcohol abuse may not always be obvious in seniors, and many older adults may refuse help. It is important to recognize the signs in yourself or in your loved ones, and follow safe drinking guidelines to live a long, healthy life. 

How Seniors can Get Help For Alcohol Abuse

Seeking help for yourself or for a loved one is no easy task. Research what options exist in your area and make a budget for any resources you may need. Online therapy is a great option for seniors who cannot leave their house, and provides the same privacy as visiting a therapist in the office. Virtual companions are also available to keep you company, if loneliness is something you struggle with. They are free of charge or relatively low budget and are free to talk 24/7.

Changing your lifestyle can be beneficial for the long term as you will be less likely to drink if you adapt to healthier habits. Start small by adding little bursts of physical activity into your routine everyday, like a short walk around the neighbourhood. If you prefer company when working out, you can hire an exercise buddy to keep you accountable on platforms like Caremada. Social exercising or walking groups may be free to join in your area, where you can meet like-minded people with the same goals and interests. Finding comfort in companionship can help pull you out of a rut when you are drawn to drinking. 

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