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U.K. Data Reveals Hidden Toll of Drinking Among Retired Women

Posted in Addiction News

U.K. Data Reveals Hidden Toll of Drinking Among Retired WomenThe damage alcoholism causes among the elderly is widely underestimated. It seems to play into our basic stereotypes about addiction — the idea that addiction is only a problem for young people. In many cases, we don’t want to realize that our aging mother is drinking too much or taking too much medication and may have a problem, but our skewed view can’t protect us from real-world consequences. In fact, new data from the U.K. shows that the number of elderly women seeking treatment for alcohol issues is increasing. 

Addiction Among Elderly Women

The new data from Public Health England reveals a more than 60 percent increase in the number of women over age 60 seeking treatment for alcohol issues in the last five years. In 2009, the study found that 1,436 elderly women were starting treatment, compared to 2,376 this year. Significantly more men in the same age group seek treatment, but the difference between the two has been cut in half.

It’s worth noting that these numbers represent only the women beginning treatment.  Many of those struggling with addiction never reach out for help. Among the elderly in particular, the difficulty in recognizing the problem (for both doctors and relatives) likely means that the true numbers are much higher than those reported here.

Inverting the Stereotype

Interestingly, the corresponding figures for young people (ages 18 to 24) show a 23 percent decrease in those seeking treatment over the same period, from 6,170 in 2009 to 4,768 in 2014. This underlines the problem with the inherent assumptions many people make about addiction and those who struggle with it. While the numbers of young people starting treatment for alcohol issues are still notably higher, the trends show the “binge-drinking youths” cutting back while older women are becoming more likely to experience problems. The focus on helping young drinkers should obviously continue, but if we let youth-focused prevention efforts hog the spotlight, other groups of people can slip by unnoticed.

Why Drinking Among the Elderly Is a Growing Problem

As we age, our bodies can’t process alcohol as efficiently. This means that for a woman who is used to having a couple glasses of wine in an evening, the effect will be very different at age 65 than it was at age 30. Combine this physical difference with a much larger amount of free time, and problem-free, moderate drinkers in their working years can become alcoholics in retirement. Dr. Paul McLaren, a consultant psychiatrist at a U.K.-based rehabilitation center, commented that “Many of the women I see are retired professionals who never had issues with alcohol in the past.”

On top of this, being retired often means dealing with loneliness and the death of loved ones, creating emotional issues that can lead to alcohol abuse. One additional factor Dr. McLaren points to is the impact of home shopping, which enables elderly people, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go out and buy alcohol, to have a supply delivered to their doorsteps.

The problem can also be missed by doctors because the symptoms of drinking problems—like memory loss or disorientation—can easily be mistaken for the ordinary consequences of aging or symptoms of an existing health problem. In many cases, the individual is also secretive about his or her drinking, making it more difficult to identify for both doctors and family members.

Finally, the physical risks of alcohol abuse are amplified for seniors. For older people on medication, there could be dangerous interactions. In addition, alcohol can worsen health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. Alcohol’s effect on the liver and brain also mean that memory problems or any liver issues will be exacerbated by drinking, as well as many psychological issues like depression.

In the U.S., the situation is much the same. Recent research shows that the number of elderly people looking for substance abuse treatment in the U.S. more than doubled between 1992 and 2008, and it’s estimated that by 2020 there will be 5.7 million older adults with substance abuse issues. The increasing number of elderly people struggling with addiction is a problem on both sides of the Atlantic, and the proposed explanations for the worrying trends are almost identical. The ideal solution is also the same: raise awareness of addiction issues among the elderly, help more people get into treatment and ensure that support is available for those struggling with loneliness and bereavement. The “hidden toll” needs to be put in the spotlight.