Alcohol is woven into the fabric of American culture. With sales totaling more than $247 billion per year and rising and roughly 1 percent of each person’s gross annual income spent on alcohol, the industry is booming. Most people are able to consume responsibly, but more than 15 million people report struggling with an alcohol use disorder. One group that shows growing numbers of addicts is seniors. As America ages, a new epidemic is affecting this population and leading to everything from related health concerns to growth in emergency room visits.

It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of people don’t start to drink heavily until their later years. In fact, widows over the age of 75 have the highest rates of alcoholism in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s guidelines state that people over 65 should have no more than seven alcoholic drinks per week, but approximately 15 percent exceed that limit. 

The effects of overindulging are seen by health practitioners nationwide as well as organizations dedicated to studying alcohol dependency. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence states that 11 percent of emergency room visits by the elderly are drug- or alcohol-related. Additionally, alcohol contributes to 60 percent of falls, which in turn account for 2.8 million emergency room visits each year. 

One factor in overindulging in alcohol seems to be that alcohol has very different physiological results in older adults than younger people. The same number of drinks tends to affect people more as they age due to the fact that they have less muscle mass, less of an ability to absorb alcohol and less water in the body. Seniors tend to think they can consume alcohol at the same rates they did for decades, when it actually affects them more. 

The excessive intake of alcohol can cause a number of health issues including Type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and even heart attacks and strokes. Years of heavy drinking can also exacerbate problems such as cirrhosis, osteoporosis, mood issues, memory problems and even dehydration. Seniors are hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as for heart attacks.

Another risk factor in heavy drinking among older adults is mixing alcohol and medications. Many are taking medications for a variety of conditions and mixing any one of them with alcohol can cause an adverse reaction. Pain medications, sleeping pills, antibiotics and even cold syrups can all react badly when combined with alcohol. Additionally, pre-existing conditions can be exacerbated by the mixing of drugs and alcohol.

Seniors’ increased alcohol consumption can be attributed to several different factors. One article called alcoholism among the elderly an “invisible epidemic” and contended that one root cause is that many elderly people live alone, leading to isolation and loneliness and therefore poor decision-making. In other words, without anyone to notice or stop them, they fall into dangerous habits.

Other situations that can cause increased drinking among seniors include losses of jobs, homes or family members. Retiring can create a vacuum when it comes to activities and personal connections, and often today’s seniors haven’t saved enough for their later years and experience financial instability. This can mean they have no choice but to move out of long-term residences or cut back on activities they formerly enjoyed. They may be reluctant to open up to their loved ones about this and turn to drinking instead.

Notable life changes such as empty-nest syndrome, deteriorating health or a traumatic event can also trigger increased alcohol consumption. Grief is a major factor in increased isolation and depression. The loss of spouses, friends and even children can all leave holes in the lives of seniors that they find hard to fill. 

Warning signs of abuse in seniors are often overlooked due to their age or the fact that they live alone. Things to look for include slurred speech, loss of interest in activities or hobbies, changes in appearance and confusion or memory loss. Additional reg flags are drinking to cope with depression, consuming alcohol with medications despite warnings not to do so, lying about the number of drinks consumed or hiding bottles of alcohol. 

If you notice this in a senior, you can speak with them informally, which tends to work well with this age group. Choosing the right time, tone and avoiding the use of labels can help. For those with a more serious problem, treatment options are available that can be tailored to each senior and his or her specific mental and physical needs. An intervention is also an option. Having medical professionals involved can be important, especially if withdrawal will be involved.

If you have a loved one who lives alone or who has experienced one of the triggers of alcoholism, it pays to be vigilant and look for the warning signs. Doctors may not link their symptoms with a alcohol-related problem since many of them are common issues associated with aging in general. This way, you can assess whether alcohol consumption is casual and social in nature, or something more.

If you feel you have a problem, or that you know someone who does, there are resources for treatment. Another important step in recovery is helping with the root causes of the issue, which can be done by addressing a loss or loneliness through increased social activities and support groups. Seniors tend to have good prognoses for recovery because they are able to stick to their treatment plans.