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Baby Boomers and Alcoholism: Why More Seniors are Drinking

baby boomers and drinking

For many, alcohol abuse is associated with the youth: teenage immaturity, wild college parties, or the 20-something bar scene.

However, recent studies show that not only are seniors 50 and older engaging in dangerous levels of alcohol use, they’re also doing it significantly more now than in the past.

According to a recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

  • The number of adults 65 years and older who drank has risen higher than the national average by about 23 percent.
  • The average number of adults 65 and older suffering from alcohol abuse had risen by nearly 107 percent.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that:

  • Older adults are hospitalized just as often for alcohol-related problems as they are for heart attacks.
  • Alcohol-related problems account for about 14 percent of senior emergency room admissions and roughly 20 percent of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions.
  • Roughly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol use disorders.

Baby Boomers are continuously struggling with alcoholism, which raises the questions of why this is happening, what the dangers are, and why it has, until recently, largely gone unnoticed?

Linking Aging and Alcohol Abuse

Some of the maybe more obvious reasons for alcohol misuse among older adults include physical pains and other health problems. However, one major cause linked to the emergence of alcohol abuse among seniors is as a form of self-medication against feelings of depression or anxiety.

Studies show that currently, as many as 1 in 4 seniors have a mental illness and that the estimated total number of older adults struggling with mental health disorders is expected to reach 15 million by 2030.

If an individual was not dealing with these mental health issues before, they can be and frequently are triggered by environmental factors such as facing a newly empty nest or a loss of purpose that can accompany retirement.

While the average transition time from what could be considered regular alcohol use to alcoholism can take years, seniors are much more vulnerable to rapid, dramatic changes in their drinking habits triggered by these sudden, significant changes in their daily routine.

One reason why Baby Boomers may choose to turn to alcohol rather than professional help is due to having lived the majority of their lives during a time when there was a much stronger stigma against mental illness. Some may find it easier or less embarrassing to cope privately with alcohol, despite the obvious dangers.

The same can also be said of having to admit to marital problems or the negative emotions associated with them. A study completed at Duke University that surveyed 11,000 people over the age of 50 found an extremely high prevalence of binge drinkers and also found a correlation between those who engaged in binge drinking being separated, divorced, or widowed.

Dangers Unique to Seniors

While alcohol use disorders can cause a whole host of health problems at any age, they pose even more danger to seniors, mostly due to changes in how the body handles alcohol with age.

While someone may have had the same drinking habits for years, their body may no longer be able to keep up with them, making seniors especially at risk for unintentional over-drinking and the potential for accidents such as falls and fractures that came come with it. Women, in particular, become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol with age.

Heavy drinking can also severely worsen health problems that are common in older adults such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Liver problems
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Memory problems
  • Heart problems

Alcohol’s negative interactions with various over-counter-medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, cough syrup, and various pain medications are also magnified in older adults and have a much higher risk of being fatal.

A Silent Epidemic

We’ve already mentioned why some Baby Boomers might be reluctant to seek help for mental health issues and instead self-medicate with alcohol, which, in turn, could make them equally unlikely to get the help they would need for an alcohol dependency.

There are several other key factors in play that have also contributed to the overwhelming lack of attention that has been paid to this swiftly growing problem. Many seniors who are struggling with alcohol abuse may go unnoticed due to the symptoms of alcoholism being so similar to medical and behavioral issues common among seniors, such as:

  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Dementia and memory problems
  • Depression
  • Diabetes

Another issue is the lack of adequate screening by physicians, which can be due to either a lack of training or something far worse: a bias that alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders are “not worth the effort” of treating in seniors.

In fact, this surprisingly pervasive bias is part of why there is only very limited data on how best to treat older adults struggling with alcohol dependency. Older people dealing with alcoholism often simply does not inspire the same sense of urgency that these problems do when present in younger people and is even often seen as a “waste” of resources.

What Can We Do?

Many relatives of Baby Boomers who are struggling with substance abuse are ashamed of the problem and will choose to ignore it rather than admit that they need help. For seniors suffering from alcohol dependence, it is vital that they get the help they need, which is why breaking down stigmas that still surround both mental illness and substance abuse to some degree is so important.

Both seniors and their families should educate themselves on both the effects of alcohol on older adults, learn what alcohol misuse in seniors looks like, and be open to talking about the issues that might be causing them to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. If you think you or your family members are suffering the wrath of alcoholism, do not be afraid to call Ocean Breeze Recovery at (844) 335-7750. Give our addiction specialists a ring or contact us online to learn more about tailored treatment plans for you.


Stephanie T.

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