When you read about alcohol abuse you may think of college campuses and Spring Break, but there's another demographic that is seriously affected by alcoholism: the elderly. Surprisingly, widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States. While a study by the American Medical Association states that over the past 10 years drinking has increased in every age group those over the age of 65 had the greatest rise of any age group. Here are six more facts about elderly alcohol abuse that may surprise you:

Alcohol contributes to 60 percent of falls.

Because seniors often lose their dexterity and flexibility they may have balance problems that are made worse after a few drinks. The National Council on Aging states that one in four people over the age of 65 has a serious fall each year and it is the leading cause of fatal injuries among the elderly, so you can see why fall prevention is vital for older Americans.

Falls are the culprit in over 2.8 million emergency room visits each year, and although they may be non-fatal they can seriously compromise the mobility of seniors. Healing slows as we age, and an elderly person who faces an extended recovery from a fall injury is more prone to depression as they may be more isolated from social activities.

Increased sensitivity

The elderly may not realize they have an increased sensitivity to alcohol. Typically as we age our tolerance for alcohol decreases as our metabolism slows down. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism this is primarily because as we age our body's water content is reduced, which means the same amount of alcohol consumption gives a higher blood alcohol level.

Because of the increased sensitivity an elderly drinker might think they're okay to drive because they consumed the same amount of alcohol as they did for years when in fact their tolerance is lower. A lower tolerance for alcohol can lead to a higher rate of car crashes, falls, and other injuries.

Increased health problems

Alcohol abuse in the elderly population can cause health problems and make existing ailments worse. Alcohol can cause or worsen other conditions such as these:

  • Liver diseases such as cirrhosis
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Memory problems
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Mood disorders (such as depression)

Reactions to medications

It may seem like common sense to not mix alcohol with medicine but you'd be surprised how many people do just that. Because seniors tend to take more medications than younger age groups the risk of a reaction goes up as well. Here are a few common medications that can react badly with alcohol:

  • Pain medication
  • Heart medicines
  • High blood pressure treatments
  • Diabetes medications such as insulin
  • Antibiotics
  • Cough syrups
  • Cold medicines
  • Acetaminophen and aspirin
  • Sleeping pills
  • Anxiety and depression medications
  • Heartburn medicine

In addition, some common herbal remedies may react to alcohol. St. John's Wort, chamomile, and valerian are three examples.

There is a 65 percent rise in high-risk drinking in elderly

Researchers define high-risk drinking in seniors as five or more drinks a day for men and four for women at least once a week during a year's time. This rate of drinking has skyrocketed 65 percent in the past decade and now stands at 3.8 percent of the elderly population, or about 2.5 million seniors.

High-risk drinking isn't confined to those who live alone, either. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence states almost half of nursing home residents have an alcohol related problem. In addition, high-risk drinking is responsible for 20 percent of elderly admissions to psychiatric hospitals and 14 percent of senior emergency room admissions.

Seniors are hospitalized as often for alcohol related problems as for heart attacks

That's right; when it comes to the elderly over indulging in alcohol is as dangerous as a heart attack. This last fact is somewhat a combination of the previous ones because falls, increased health problems, and reactions to mixing alcohol and medications can all lead to a hospitalization. By comparing alcohol abuse in the elderly population to the risks of heart attacks you get a clear picture of how serious the consequences can be.

We're not saying seniors should abstain from alcohol entirely. Ask your doctor if alcohol can interact with any medications you may be taking before you drink, and if she says it's okay follow these guidelines:

**No more than three drinks on any given day and no more than seven drinks a week.

That being said, if you weigh 100 pounds soaking wet you should cut this scale back even more. Make sure you eat before and after drinking, and never drive after you imbibe.

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