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Rise in Alcohol Use Among Older Adults Increases Health Risks
By Craig Thomas, MD
In the past two decades, alcohol use among older adults has been trending upward, especially for women. When combined with alcohol, the extra health issues older adults often have can be made even more dangerous.
While binge drinking is more commonly associated with the college crowd, there is a subset of older adults who binge drink, as well. Data reveals that 20% of adults ages 60 – 64 and 11% ages 60+ report binge drinking.
Relationship With the Pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, 14% of older adults reported an increase in their alcohol use, according to the University of Michigan’s 2021 National Poll on Healthy Aging. Of those who cited increased drinking in 2020, isolation and lack of companionship provided a correlation for 19 percent of them.
Alcohol + Health Conditions
Older adults are more prone to certain health conditions. When combined with heavy drinking, these problems can worsen. Some of these conditions include memory loss, diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, and liver issues.
Cancer also falls into this category. The National Cancer Institute reveals a strong scientific conclusion that drinking alcohol can cause several types of cancer.
On average, alcohol consumption accounts for nearly 5% of cancer cases in the United States and 3.2% of cancer deaths, according to a 2021 study. Data is broken down at the state level, and numbers vary across the country.
Mixing With Medication
As with any adult, drinking alcohol while taking certain medications can be dangerous for older adults. This is especially true since older adults tend to take multiple medications. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs both can play a role in a dangerous or deadly combination with alcohol.
Impact of Age
Older adults feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and can’t drink the same as their younger selves. As bodies age, there is less muscle to absorb alcohol since lean body mass is gradually declining. This increased sensitivity to the effects of alcohol can contribute to potential injuries, such as falls, bone fractures, and car crashes.
Tips for Older Adults
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025 provide recommendations for adults age 60 and older. While they are not encouraging anyone to add alcohol if they don’t drink, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is suggesting older adults drink in moderation – limit alcohol to one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less in a day for men.
If you do drink, make it part of a healthy lifestyle. Avoid using alcohol as a way to deal with problems, such as pain, depression, or insomnia. Use it to build connections with family and friends and provide enjoyment.
Talk with your healthcare provider and pharmacist about any medications you are concerned about in relation to alcohol. It’s always best to be proactive and informed.
Dr. Craig Thomas is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold. His clinical interests include geriatrics, deprescribing, and preventive medicine.