Alcoholism and the Elderly — the New Epidemic?

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Rather than comprising a group requiring special attention due to their susceptibility to alcohol abuse, the elderly have far fewer drinking problems than other adults, are well aware of their reduced capacity for alcohol, and overwhelmingly find drinking an enjoyable, healthy, and prosocial activity.

The Star Ledger (Newark), July 29, 1998, p. A19

Is problem drinking rampant among the elderly? Recently, Columbia’s National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) issued a report indicating that almost 20 percent of elderly women abuse prescription drugs or alcohol. The director of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), the American Medical Association, and others claim we have an epidemic of alcohol abuse among the elderly.

In fact, more of the elderly misuse prescription medications than alcohol or else combine medications improperly with drinking. As for drinking alone, government surveys have shown that the oldest Americans have the fewest problems of any age group.

In one national survey conducted by the Alcohol Research Group, a half a percent of women over sixty reported a symptom of alcohol dependence (for example, binge drinking or a missed meal as a result of drinking) over the previous year, compared with 18 percent of women age 23-29. The survey, funded by a division of SAMSHA, said women in their sixties have one-35th the likelihood of abusing alcohol of women in their twenties.

Ronald Stall of the Alcohol Research Group found that a substantial number of problem drinkers actually reduce or cease drinking in old age. Apparently, older people don’t need medical authorities to tell them they have less tolerance for alcohol.

Still, drinking has important benefits for the elderly. The December 1997 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine carried a report on research conducted by the American Cancer Society with a half-million elderly Americans. The researchers found death rates from all cardiovascular disease were 30 to 40 percent lower among the elderly who reported at least one drink daily. Since heart disease is the major cause of death, moderate drinking reduced overall mortality for this age group.

Moreover, a group of French researchers found a striking reduction in Alzheimer’s disease among elderly drinkers compared with abstainers. This study is one of a series to have found better mental functioning among moderate drinkers than among the nondrinking elderly. Research from the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council Twin Study, the INSERM research group in France, and Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly conducted at Harvard and Boston Universities have reached the same conclusion.

This consistent finding should be welcomed with excitement for suggesting a way of improving the quality of life for elderly Americans. But in our era of concern about alcohol and drugs, such positive findings are ignored. Authorities seemingly feel it is best to discourage all drinking by publicizing only the negative results of alcohol consumption, particularly by those we view as vulnerable, like the elderly.

Yet the evidence is that most elderly people drink moderately and enjoy drinking. In the Journal of the American Geriatric Society in 1996, physician Wendy Adams of the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee examined three retirement communities in suburban Milwaukee. She found moderate alcohol use prevalent in this group of elderly people. Moreover, drinking was associated with a greater number of social contacts and better health.

The irony is that consuming alcohol is one of the few things that people do naturally, without medical supervision, that they enjoy and that is healthy for them. Most people have to be introduced to exercise programs. But most people know how to drink moderately. Can’t we recognize this healthy pleasure without fear that we are driving our unsuspecting elderly to alcoholism?

Stanton Peele
Stanton Peele
Stanton Peele , recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of nine books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe. View Stanton Peele's Books on Amazon
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