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Aging and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse among older men and women is a more serious problem than people realize. Until recently, older problem drinkers tended to be ignored by both health professionals and the general public. The neglect occurred for several reasons: few of our older population were identified as alcoholics; chronic problem drinkers (those who abused alcohol off and on for most of their lives) often died before old age; and because they are often retired or have fewer social contacts, older people are often able to hide drinking problems.

More people are learning that alcohol problems can be successfully treated at any age, and more are willing to seek help to stop their drinking.

Physical Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol slows down brain activity. It impairs mental alertness, judgment, physical coordination, and reaction time -- increasing the risk of falls and accidents.

Over time, heavy drinking can cause permanent damage to the brain and central nervous system, as well as to the liver, heart, kidneys, and stomach.

Alcohol can affect the body in unusual ways, making some medical problems difficult to diagnose. For example, the effect of alcohol on the cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels) includes masking pain that might otherwise serve as a warning sign of heart attack. Alcoholism can also produce symptoms similar to those of dementia: forgetfulness, reduced attention, and confusion.

Mixing Drugs

Alcohol, itself a drug, is often harmful if mixed with other drugs, including those sold by prescription and those bought over-the-counter. People over 65 run the greatest risk of a bad drug interaction since they make up 12 percent of the population and take 25 percent of all medications. Also, older Americans are heavy users of over-the-counter drugs.

Mixing drugs -- such as alcohol, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain killers, and antihistamines -- can be very dangerous. For example, aspirin in some people causes bleeding in the stomach and intestines. Alcohol also irritates the stomach and, when combined with aspirin, may increase the risk of bleeding.

With advancing age, major changes occur in the body's ability to absorb and dispose of drugs and alcohol. Anyone who drinks -- even moderately -- should check with a doctor or pharmacist about possible drug interactions.

Who Becomes a Problem Drinker?

In old age, problem drinkers seem to be one of two types. The first are chronic abusers, those who have used alcohol heavily for many years. Although most chronic abusers die by middle age, some survive into old age. Approximately two-thirds of older alcoholics are in this group.

The second type begins excessive drinking late in life, often in response to "situational" factors: retirement, lowered income, declining health, loneliness, or the deaths of friends and loved ones. In these cases, alcohol is first used for temporary relief but later becomes a problem.

Detecting Drinking Problems

Not everyone who drinks regularly or heavily is an alcohol abuser, but the following actions indicate a problem:

* Drinking to calm nerves, forget worries, or reduce depression

* Losing interest in food

* Gulping drinks and drinking too fast.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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