Do you find yourself reaching for a cocktail more often lately? Does a loved one’s wine habit worry you? You’d be wise to pay close attention to these concerns. Alcohol abuse is a common and serious problem for older men and women. Among adults ages 60 and older, 10 percent of those living at home and 40 percent of those residing in assisted-living facilities abuse alcohol. Seeking help sooner instead of later can help regain control over alcohol. Aging itself is part of the problem. You have a lower tolerance to alcohol than you did when you were younger. In addition, your reaction times are slower and you may have problems hearing and seeing. These changes put older people at higher risk for alcohol-related falls, car crashes and other accidents.
You may also be taking more medicines now than when you were younger. Mixing alcohol with certain over-the-counter or prescription drugs can be dangerous, even deadly. Plus, alcohol can aggravate some common medical conditions like high blood pressure and ulcers.
For many people, having a drink at the end of the day is perfectly OK. Moderate alcohol use causes few problems for most adults. But some people should not drink at all, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, such as anyone who:
- plans to drive or do anything that requires alertness and skill
- takes certain over-the-counter or prescription medications
- has a medical condition that can be worsened by drinking
Talk to your doctor about your health history and lifestyle and whether drinking any alcohol is too risky for you. A common myth about alcohol abuse is that controlling drinking is simply a matter of willpower. But can you control your diabetes or blood pressure with willpower? Of course not; those are diseases—and so is alcoholism.
As with any disease, alcohol abuse has symptoms, which include:
- craving—a strong need, or urge, to drink
- loss of control—not being able to stop drinking once you start
- physical dependence—withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety within 12 hours after your last drink
- tolerance—the need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to feel its effects
Another common belief suggests that anyone can stop drinking whenever he or she wants. Some people with alcohol-related problems may be able to limit the amount they drink. But some can’t. Research shows that alcoholics who try to cut down on their drinking rarely succeed. For them, recovery means eliminating alcohol.
Treatment programs work just as well for older drinkers as they do for younger alcohol abusers. The first step on the road to recovery is to talk to your healthcare provider. He or she can advise you about your health, your drinking habits and the treatment options best for you. You have many treatment plans to choose from. Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous have a long history of success. Other programs teach problem drinkers to recognize the situations or feelings that trigger their drinking and ways to handle those triggers without turning to alcohol.
More serious addictions may require detoxification (ridding the body of alcohol to break dependence). Prescription medicines and counseling can help prevent a return to drinking. Family support is often critical for successful treatment, and many programs counsel spouses and other family members as part of the process. By taking advantage of these services, your loved ones can help you beat the bottle.