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Healthy Geezer

Signs of alcoholism in the elderly

By Fred Cicetti | Jul 24, 2014

Q. How extensive is alcoholism among older people?

Alcoholism is a serious problem among seniors. Here are just a few statistics that tell the story:

About 70 percent of hospital admissions for older adults are for illness and accidents related to alcohol.

About half of older adults in nursing homes have an alcohol problem.

Older adults lose an average of 10 years off their lives because of alcohol abuse.

About 80 percent of doctors misdiagnose alcoholism as depression in older women.

The highest growing number of alcoholics is among 75-year-old widowers.

About 10 percent of patients over age 60 who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are actually suffering from brain damage caused by alcoholism.

“Alcohol abuse among older adults is something few want to talk about or deal with,” said Charles Curie, former administrator of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Too often, family members are ashamed of the problem and choose not to address it. Healthcare providers tend not to ask older patients about alcohol abuse if it wasn’t a problem in their lives in earlier years.

“Sometimes the symptoms are mistaken for those of dementia, depression, or other problems common to older adults. Unfortunately, too many older persons turn to alcohol as a comfort following the death of a spouse, a divorce, retirement, or some other major life change, unaware that they are markedly affecting the quality of their lives.”

A few definitions

Alcoholism is a disease with four symptoms: craving or compulsion to drink, the inability to limit drinking, high alcohol tolerance, and physical dependence.

Alcohol abuse does not include strong craving, loss of control or physical dependence. Alcohol abuse is defined as drinking that causes problems in your life such as failing at work, getting arrested for drunk driving, or hurting someone physically or emotionally because of drinking.

Moderate drinking is defined as consuming up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people. A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

The American Medical Association offers the following list of physical symptoms to diagnose alcoholism. If an older person shows several symptoms, there is a high probability of alcoholism.

• Bruises, abrasions, and scars in locations that might suggest frequent falls, bumping into objects, physical altercations, or other violent behavior

• Cigarette burns on the fingers

• Flushed or florid faces

• Jerky eye movement or loss of central vision

• Damage to nerves causing numbness and tingling

• Hypertension, particularly systolic (the first number)

• Gastrointestinal or other bleeding

• Cirrhosis or other evidence of liver impairment, such as swelling in the lower extremities, and other signs of fluid retention

• Psoriasis.

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