Recognizing the Signs
Alcoholism in seniors can present itself in two different ways, the most prevalent being early-onset, which includes those who have been drinking for most of their adult lives. Two-thirds of those struggling with alcohol dependency fall into this category. The remaining third, with late-onset, typically begin drinking heavily later in life, often as a way of dealing with some sort of loss – whether of a loved one, career,
Prescription drug dependency can develop quickly and cause issues as well. Older adults may take too many pills, forgetting they have already taken one, or they may have multiple prescriptions that don’t interact well. Since 83% of people over 65 take at least one prescribed drug and often have several doctors prescribing different drugs, it’s easy to see how it can become a problem. “Many seniors will abuse prescription drugs unwillingly. When prescribed pain killers and sedatives, some of them will develop tolerance to the effects of those medications, which will lead to physical dependence followed by the behavioral changes of addiction,” explains Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim, a psychiatrist with Parkridge Valley Hospital.
When the two are combined, outcomes are especially dangerous. Alcohol can quadruple the effect of many prescription drugs, at least half of which will include a sedative.
Unfortunately, being able to recognize the signs of drug or alcohol abuse in seniors can be difficult. Dr. Ibrahim explains, “Alcohol or drug abuse may actually mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders, like diabetes, dementia, or depression. This makes it easy for doctors who encounter an older patient to attribute the declining mental or physical health simply to ‘old age’ if they do not specifically ask questions regarding substance abuse.”
Older adults also tend to prefer drinking or using drugs at home rather than in public, and they don’t always have daily duties like going to work or school, where signs might be more apparent to others. There are signs though, such as an increase in falls, changing doctors and pharmacies frequently, hostility, confusion, loss of interest in hobbies, or being secretive in disposing of empty bottles. Keeping a vigilant eye is crucial to determining the best time to intervene.
The Harmful Effects
The reason for concern should be more than judgment over a relative’s lifestyle. “Drug or alcohol abuse among the elderly is particularly dangerous because senior citizens are more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of these substances. That’s because by the time they reach age 65, they have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol,” says Dr. Ibrahim. Substance abuse can cause or exacerbate conditions such as liver disease, depression, anxiety, or high blood pressure. Dr. Christopher Harris, director of operations and clinical services for Focus Treatment Centers in Chattanooga, explains, “Some of the symptoms of drug intoxication or abuse can impact the aging population more quickly, and the effects can last longer. Short-term memory loss from alcohol or drug abuse can be more significant; unsteadiness, falling, and slurred speech can all be more pronounced. For example, 14% of all falls in this population can be attributed to psychoactive medication.” The problem is so prevalent, in fact, that older adults are admitted to the hospital for substance-related problems as often as for heart attacks.