Trends in Alcohol Consumption in Older Adults

shutterstock 776262118 Studies regarding alcohol use have revealed that, in general, consumption has increased among all adults of all age groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to one older study, though, we can see that alcohol use in the United States increased over 100% from 2001 to 2013. More recent surveys are indicating that use has trended upward more so among women, and among men and women of the Baby Boomer generation. Although the majority of older adults report drinking at low to moderate levels, approximately 20% say that they drink alcohol 4 or more times a week. A slightly higher percentage say that they had 6 or more drinks on at least one occasion in the previous year. We might not describe this as a major health crisis, but we can definitely see that it could be problematic. 

Negative Effects of Alcohol in Older Adults 

Alcohol consumption that surpasses the general guidelines can have negative physical and mental effects on any person. Experts hold concerns about alcohol consumption and consequences such as liver and heart problems, mood disorders, memory issues, and a weakened immune system. Because older adults tend to have less muscle to help the body process alcohol, they metabolize alcohol more slowly than younger adults. This places older women at a higher risk than their male counterparts simply due to biology. An additional concern is that alcohol may not interact well with medications, and may result in unintentional injuries. 

“Drink Responsibly” is Only Part of the Message

The general message that we hear about alcohol is to drink responsibly. This alludes to consuming no more than the recommended guidelines. For men, this is two drinks a day. For women, it is one. The standard is defined as 14 grams, which is quickly reached in 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer. Also, these guidelines do not account for age, health conditions, or how a medication may interact with alcohol. When we do account for potential contraindications, we can see that, for some, the best message is to avoid alcohol altogether. But there’s more. 

Alcohol avoidance isn’t easy for everyone. Multiple surveys have indicated that alcohol use has risen significantly during the COVID pandemic. While it is estimated that the increase is lower for older adults than younger generations, surveys have also identified a link between alcohol use and depression and anxiety. Without proper attention for these conditions and their causes, it may be quite difficult to avoid alcohol as a coping mechanism. Experts recommend that people with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions strictly avoid alcohol, as it can worsen their symptoms rather than manage them. Instead, we are encouraged to avoid social isolation however we can. For some, this may mean daily video chats with loved ones. For others, it may mean gradually re-entering a more socially-engaged life after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

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