Recent research is bringing to light a troubling trend in alcohol abuse: A spike in late-in-life, high-risk drinking.
Problem drinking is on the rise among older Americans, according to a recent study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The number of adults 65 and older who engaged in high-risk drinking increased by 65% between 2002 and 2013. Despite findings showing older people are less likely to drink than younger people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that those age 65 and older engage in binge drinking most often. Moreover, alcohol use disorders (AUD) have jumped above 3% among all seniors—more than doubling over the past decade.
Dr. Marc Schuckit, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist at the University of California, San Diego wrote an editorial accompanying the new report, calling this trajectory “remarkable.”
Alcohol and Age
So why are seniors turning to alcohol more often than before?
Researchers have identified possible causes ranging from anxiety resulting from the onset of the economic recession in 2008 to a greater social acceptance of alcohol use in general.
Age too, can significantly compound the effects of alcohol. As people get older, their sensitivity to alcohol changes.
“With each drink, an older person’s blood alcohol levels will rise higher than a younger drinker’s,” Dr. Schuckit noted. “Older people have less muscle mass, and the liver metabolizes alcohol more slowly. Aging brains grow more sensitive to its sedative properties, too.”
The same amount of alcohol may have a greater effect on an older drinker that it would on a younger one and if existing drinking habits don’t change, this can pose a serious issue.
While alcohol abuse remains undertreated in all age groups, older drinkers face issues unique to their demographic group. The problem older drinkers face is the compounding effects of heavy drinking, particularly in how it tends to worsen existing health problems. Changes in the body, existing health issues, and types of medications are all factors determining how alcohol interacts with an older drinker.
Older Adults Behind the Wheel
In 2015, the Federal Highway Administration notes there were more than 40 million licensed drivers ages 65 and older in the U.S., a 50% increase from 1999. And while many older adults view driving as a way to maintain their independence, the risk of being injured or killed in a crash increases with age.
In fact, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida suggests that for some older drivers, even one drink could be enough to impair driving skills, with those drivers exhibiting poor precision in a simulated driving situation.
But there is good news, older adult drivers are less likely to drink and drive than younger drivers. In 2015, only 6% of drivers over 75 were involved in a fatal crash with a 0.08 or higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC). For drivers ages 21-24, 28% had a BAC of 0.08 or higher.