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Alcoholism Easily Masked in Seniors

Posted in Alcoholism

Underage drinking is a major public health concern, because those that experiment at a young age often develop dependence by the time they reach young adulthood. However, baby boomers are at great risk for developing an alcohol addiction.


The Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) discussed a problem that’s becoming common in New Hampshire. Among adults aged 55 and older, alcohol and other substance abuse may be masked by the symptoms of aging. Falls, depression and other signs of alcohol addiction can be mistakenly attributed to age and other physical ailments, distracting caregivers from alcoholism symptoms.

Seniors may be reluctant to seek treatment, or may refuse if a family member encourages them to get help. The stigma attached to alcoholism may be more pronounced among seniors, making them avoid treatment.

The concern over alcoholism in seniors is occurring at the same time that physicians and other healthcare workers are seeing an increase in senior drug abuse. According to the MPBN, illicit drug use has more than doubled in the years since 2002 among those aged 50 to 59. Among New Hampshire seniors, adults between the ages of 50 and 64 admit to having three to four drinks on one occasion at a rate of 19 percent.

The numbers may be underrepresenting the problem, says Stephen Bartels, the Director of the Dartmouth Center for Health and Aging. Bartels says that when physicians include an alcohol consumption screening and drug screening in their regular exams, the numbers are much higher.

According to Bartels, there are multiple reasons for increased levels of alcoholism among the senior population. Older adults tend to tolerate smaller amounts of alcohol as they grow older. In addition, alcohol consumption may be an effort to self-medicate against other physical ailments.

As regulators measure the problem and try to implement strategies to prevent abuse, there has also been a spotlight on prescription drug abuse among seniors. However, says Bartels, alcohol is the most significant problem.

Among middle-aged adults, men are the heavy, chronic drinkers. In later adulthood, however, two-thirds of those with alcohol addiction are female. This is partially explained by major life changes that impact women mentally, emotionally and physically. Such changes may include the loss of a spouse, or a physical ailment that significantly impacts quality of life.

The MPBN piece profiles the alcohol addiction stories of two different women. Bonnie Houle is described as a woman in her late 60s who rarely engaged in social drinking for most of her adult life. However, after her mother passed away, Houle moved into a housing complex where drinking was part of the social scene. Before long, Houle was not only a social drinker but started her day with a glass of wine. Ann Dowsett Johnston talked about her use of alcohol to dull the depressive symptoms she experienced after she became an empty nester.

Johnston says that for many women, red wine represents something healthy they can indulge in, like dark chocolate. However, many women are not aware enough of the dangers that are tied to alcohol consumption.

Bartels hopes that the growing awareness surrounding senior alcohol addiction will lead to increased screenings at regular physician exams. Like any mental or physical condition, the outcomes are greatly improved when early identification leads to treatment. Treating the addiction before it continues over a period of years can help seniors regain their quality of life.