This post was originally published on September 22, 2015.
It’s one thing to try and keep up with your college drinking habits well into your 20s and 30s (I know because I tried). But trying to carry that crazy into your twilight years? You may want to start wearing a helmet and some knee pads. What I’m trying to say is, you baby boomers/soon-to-be-retirees gotta watch your booze intake. Because the older you get, the more harm too much alcohol will do to your system.
Washington Post regular contributor Jill U. Adams recently shared about this topic in a column for the newspaper. She begins by admitting she herself often wants to indulge in more than one glass of wine when she’s out to eat at a restaurant. To me, that seems like child’s play but I appreciate her recognition of alcohol’s effects on the elderly, which is more the point of her piece.
Less Able to Handle the Hooch
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism makes alcohol intake recommendations but those numbers shift after the age of 65. For both men and women over 65, they recommend no more than seven drinks per week, three drinks per day at the most. Legit serving sizes are to be respected. In other news, has anyone ever in the history of drinking made sure they only consumed the official recommended serving of liquor/wine/beer?
Anyway, I think what’s most troubling about the biological reality of older bodies not breaking down alcohol as well and experiencing the negative side effects like memory loss more severely is that people who may have been “normal drinkers” their whole life could develop an issue. And those who’d been technically non-problematic drinkers, but drinking heavily nonetheless, may suddenly start having adverse reactions. As Adams points out, less muscle mass equates to alcohol more easily circulating into the blood. Also, after around middle age, people start to lose ADH, an enzyme that breaks alcohol down in the system. You get the picture.
A Family Affair
It’s not an easy issue for families to address either. Watching parents deal with all the burdens that come with getting older is hard enough but watching them also tuck into the gin a little earlier each day just makes things a hell of a lot worse. But it’s a delicate subject. Respecting your elders all day long but turning a blind eye to a grandparent’s extra swigging because they’ve earned it is downright wrongheaded. There are not only higher risks for certain alcohol-related illnesses when someone is older, there are also just more reasons to drink. Anything from boredom in retirement to depression over the death of a spouse to coping with the aging process can drive a person to the bottle more often.
With age, there also comes a serious case of set-in-your-ways syndrome (full disclosure: that’s not an official scientific term) so any parent or grandparent or great aunt or whatever experiencing difficulty handling their liquor will also be less likely to jump into an AA meeting at 66 years old. And therapy? Forget it. Many of that generation associates therapy with crazies and weakness.
I would assume there is also just an overall lack of desire to make major life changes after one reaches a certain age. Breaking a defining lifestyle habit like regular happy hours is hard at 32; I can’t imagine trying to do it with 30 more years under my belt. Alexix Keurbis, the Hunter College social worker Adams references in her article, says age-specific group therapy is the best method for treating elderly alcohol abusers but in her experience most “had zero motivation to change.” So whatever tactic you may use to help an elder in need may fall on deaf ears, literally. (My bad, seriously hacky senior citizen joke alert.)
The Health Costs of Senior Drinking
Keep in mind, this elderly substance abuse will affect healthcare costs. There are an estimated 78 million American citizens identified as baby boomers. These are the people hitting their 50s and 60s right now. The costs of treating the physical problems associated with age as well as mental health treatment associated with alcohol abuse, gambling addictions and, let’s not forget, painkiller abuse, may soon overwhelm the already broken healthcare system.
So, in keeping with the role reversal that gradually happens as kids grow up and their parents grow old, talk to your mom and dad about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Or maybe just monitor Mom’s wine glass(es) at Thanksgiving just a little more closely.