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Elderly Alcohol Abuse: Signs, Health Risks, and Treatment


Elderly alcohol abuse in the U.S. has steadily increased over the last twenty years. It may be surprising to some to learn that 10-15% of people don’t begin drinking heavily until they are of older age.[1] Sadly, drinking problems in the senior citizen population are often misdiagnosed or overlooked. Many symptoms of alcohol abuse among this population mimic those of the signs of aging and the side effects of medications. What’s worse is that alcohol abuse is particularly dangerous to the elderly as it leads to many health risks, accidents, and worsening health conditions. 

The only way to eliminate these risks during the senior years is to quit drinking entirely. However, if a person is a real alcoholic, he or she may find it difficult to quit drinking – even if their health and life depend on it. Moreover, alcohol withdrawals are dangerous and potentially fatal for anyone – but the risks are increased among geriatric patients. Fortunately, there are alcohol treatment centers that specialize in elderly alcohol abuse, medical detox, and treatment. 

Alcohol Abuse and Senior Citizens 

Alcoholism affects people from all walks of life. It doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, faith, or background. However, there are many risk factors that contribute to instances of elderly alcohol abuse. Understandably, when people age they face unique challenges. For example, deteriorating health, loss of a spouse, financial difficulties, and aging, in general, are hard to cope with. Many times these hardships that senior citizens face are overlooked and many are left suffering in solidarity. In some cases, these individuals will turn to alcohol to cope with these circumstances. 

In many cases, people begin drinking chronically during adulthood and these habits persist into the golden years. Furthermore, some people experience bouts of sobriety, then fall back into drinking as the challenges from the senior years take hold. On the other hand, some don’t start drinking heavily until they grow older. Approximately one-third of elderly alcoholics develop alcoholism later in life, while the other two-thirds experience early-onset alcoholism.[2] Regardless of a person’s history, elderly alcohol abuse exists at staggering rates. In fact, nearly 50% of people living in nursing homes or assisted living have alcohol-related problems.[1]

Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors

Not everyone who ages will abuse alcohol. There are factors that increase a person’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, such as a family history of alcoholism or a past history of alcohol abuse. Some risk factors for alcoholism among seniors include: 

  • Watching children (and grandchildren) grow up and move away – also known as Empty Nest Syndrome
  • Experiencing the loss of a spouse and/or other friends or family
  • Sadness and isolation after moving into a new living environment
  • Boredom, lack of purpose and socialization
  • Deteriorating mental and/or physical health
  • Losing friends due to aging, moving, health problems, or death
  • Having a history of chronic drinking

Signs of Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly

To ensure the health and safety of any individual, it is important to understand and recognize the signs of alcohol abuse. However, studies found that family and physicians fail to adequately screen for and diagnose geriatric substance use disorders.[3] This is partially due to a general lack of awareness around the problem as well as a failure to link healthy symptoms to the effects of drinking. Among senior citizens specifically, there is a widespread use of prescription medications that may prevent the detection of alcohol abuse or interfere negatively with alcohol. Lastly, some people may rationalize the fact that, due to a person’s age or circumstances, it’s “okay” for them to drink. 

Consider the following signs of chronic drinking among senior citizens:

  • Drinking to cope with depression, anxiety, or loneliness
  • Combining alcohol with prescription medications for stronger effects
  • Appearing annoyed or irritable when sober
  • Lying to loved ones about drinking
  • Getting into accidents more often (ex. Falling, car wrecks, etc.)
  • Hiding liquor bottles
  • Confusion, memory loss, depression, or apathy
  • Drinking despite facing health complications or warnings from doctors to stop
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Isolating oneself

Alcoholism among seniors is difficult to catch because some of these symptoms are normal symptoms of getting older. However, it’s crucial to provide substance abuse treatment for the elderly to prevent further health risks and consequences.

Health Risks

Anyone who abuses alcohol over an extended period of time is susceptible to certain health risks. Chronic drinking negatively affects nearly every part of the human body and can significantly shorten a person’s lifespan. For example, drinking too much is associated with having a weakened immune system. Since alcohol slows down the body’s ability to fight off infections, people who drink chronically are more likely to contract illnesses like tuberculosis and pneumonia.[4] That’s not all – the CDC reports that chronic alcohol abuse leads to:[5]

  • Digestive problems
  • Liver disease (cirrhosis, fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis)
  • Heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure
  • Colon, liver, esophagus, mouth, throat, and breast cancer
  • Mental health problems
  • Memory problems, cognitive difficulties, dementia
  • Alcohol dependence

Among seniors, drug-drug interactions are of particular concern. Depending on which medications a person is on, interactions can lead to increased blood-alcohol levels, changes in alcohol metabolism rates, extreme physical and mental impairment, and more. These drug-drug interactions may allow a person to get drunk faster and become further impaired, As a result, geriatric alcohol abusers are far more likely to suffer adverse side effects of their medications as well as medical complications related to heavy drinking. In elderly individuals, alcohol is more likely to increase the risk of hip fractures, hypertension, high blood sugar levels, and poor nutrition. 

Additionally, this group is at an increased risk for depressive symptoms and emotional or psychological disorders. In fact, chronic drinking is associated with higher suicide rates among senior citizens.[3] As drinking continues and cognitive abilities decline, individuals become more at risk of developing dementia or other cognitive problems. The only way to prevent these adverse health effects is to seek treatment and quit drinking entirely.

Treating Alcohol Abuse Among the Elderly

Evidence shows that alcohol treatment programs that offer elder-specific programs improve outcomes in senior patients.[2] When it comes to alcoholism and senior citizens, the first step towards recovery is medically-supervised detox. 

Medical Detox

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms have the potential to lead to fatal seizures, delirium tremens, and more. Senior citizens are considered high-risk patients when it comes to alcohol withdrawal, so symptom management should be closely supervised by medical professionals at an inpatient detox facility. Senior citizens who experience alcohol withdrawal at are an increased risk for delirium, falls, seizures, and difficulty completing day-to-day tasks, so it’s important that they are closely monitored throughout the detox process.

During detox, withdrawal symptoms are managed using short-acting benzodiazepines. These drugs help mitigate withdrawal symptoms and make patients more comfortable. Other ways to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the elderly include thiamine and vitamin supplements, electrolyte infusions, and general supportive care.[2] After detox, patients move onto treatment and supportive counseling.

Alcohol Rehab for the Elderly

After detox, individuals who attend inpatient alcohol rehab programs tend to have better treatment outcomes. In order to mitigate further health risks and protect the well-being of senior citizens who suffer from alcoholism, elderly treatment programs are vital. The counseling and support provided in treatment help set the foundation for ongoing sobriety.

Elderly alcohol abuse often goes undiagnosed or is ignored. Many people don’t know how many senior citizens have a problem with drinking, so it goes overlooked. Open communication is the best way to ensure the health of loved ones. Our beloved seniors need support and therapeutic interventions just like the rest of the population. If you don’t know how to help an alcoholic loved one or have a loved one who is ready for help, reach out to an addiction specialist at Agape today. Our professionals are standing by to answer your questions about our alcohol rehab programs in Fort Lauderdale


Alcoholism in the Elderly;year=2017;volume=4;issue=1;spage=4;epage=10;aulast=Lal#ref3″
Alcohol’s Effects on the Body

Call the Agape Treatment Center admissions team at 888-614-0077 to learn more about what our addiction and mental health facilities can do for you or your loved one.

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