Among the various changes adults experience as part of the normal aging process, alcohol intolerance may not even be considered. As we get older, other health and wellness concerns take the spotlight, with little thought given to the effects of alcohol.
The fact is, however, that alcohol is processed differently in older adults, and can lead to unexpected health risks. Currently, there are approximately 73 million Americans that are over the age of 60, and about 40% of this age cohort consume alcohol. With an aging population continuing to increase, understanding the changes in our metabolism as we age and that affects our ability to metabolize alcohol is essential.
How Alcohol Affects Us as We Age
It may be hard to accept, but as we age our ability to tolerate alcohol decreases. Someone who attempts to maintain the same alcohol habits from younger years may notice that it takes longer for them to sober up. In fact, the residual effects of the alcohol in the bloodstream can last for hours in an older adult, increasing the risk for falls or injuries.
The reasons for the increased sensitivity to alcohol in later years can be explained by simple natural age-related factors. As people age they accumulate more body fat, which can contribute to a higher blood alcohol level. Also, the liver’s functionality diminishes somewhat in older people, so alcohol is not broken down as efficiently.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol consumption guidelines for older adults stipulate no more than one alcoholic beverage consumed per day, and not to exceed three alcoholic beverages in a given day.
Dangers Associated with Alcohol Intolerance
Alcohol intolerance refers to the condition in which the effects of alcohol are more enhanced in the older age group. They may find that just one drink will cause them to feel the effects, when in the past it might have taken two or three drinks. This typifies the diminishing ability to tolerate the effects of alcohol as we get older.
Addiction specialist, Brad Lander from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center notes, “As we age, it takes longer for the body to break down alcohol. It stays in the system longer. Tolerance also decreases. Excessive drinking can compromise your immune system and can lead to some forms of cancer.”
Increased alcohol intolerance can cause several adverse effects on people as they age, including:
- As we age, higher blood alcohol concentration can occur, a higher sensitivity to the effects of alcohol when compared to a younger person who consumed the same amount. This can lead to auto accidents or even a DUI arrest.
- Alcoholism may speed up the normal aging process or cause premature aging of the brain. The frontal lobes, specifically, are vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, with shrinkage of this brain region exhibited in elderly subjects.
- Contraindications between the effects of alcohol and various common medications used by older individuals may present dangerous health risks.
- Older adults tend to have issues with balance and reflexes, so when under the influence they are more prone to falling.
- Because of decreased bone density in the elderly, alcohol-related falls, as a result of feeling unstable, are associated with hip fractures.
- Alcohol is a depressant. Often, a senior is mourning the loss of a spouse or a friend and already experiencing signs of depression. Alcohol can exacerbate those depressive symptoms and even increase the risk of suicide in this population.
- Alcohol consumption in older adults can increase the risk of certain cancers, liver damage, diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, brain damage, and immune system conditions.
What is Alcohol Toxicity?
One significant danger of increasing alcohol intolerance among older adults is the risk of overwhelming the liver due to excessive alcohol consumption. This risk is higher in the elderly population because the liver does not have the same metabolic capacity as it did in earlier years. When someone consumes too much alcohol in a short period of time, they may put themselves at risk for alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when the blood alcohol level has risen so high that the liver cannot process the toxins. Symptoms of alcohol toxicity include:
- Shallow or irregular breathing
- Mental confusion
- Low body temperature
- Pale, clammy skin
Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that requires immediate life-saving interventions. While awaiting first responders, stay with the individual and try to keep them conscious. To reduce the risk of asphyxiation due to vomiting, lay the individual on his or her side. Do not give the person anything to eat or drink, or any medication.
How to Avoid Developing an Alcohol Problem
If signs of an alcohol problem begin to emerge it is critical to make lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. By acknowledging the signs of a problem and being proactive, it is possible to reverse the trajectory of the alcohol issue. Some ways to avoid an alcohol use disorder might include:
- Continue to be physically active. Regular exercise is protective against mental health conditions, which the alcohol may have been used to self-medicate. If you are feeling down or lonely, try to take a daily walk at minimum to increase endorphin production.
- Be honest with yourself about how much alcohol you are consuming. For example, a glass of wine will vary depending on the ounces of wine a glass will hold. Know how many ounces of alcohol you are actually drinking.
- When you do have an alcoholic beverage, be sure to also eat so there is something in the stomach to help slow the effects of the alcohol.
- Avoid activities where alcohol consumption is going to be proliferating
- If you feel the urge to drink, distract yourself with a hobby, see a movie, or go visit a friend or relative.
- If you do believe you are acquiring an alcohol problem, make an appointment with the doctor for an exam and guidance.
Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder
Among the senior population, increasing levels of alcohol use disorder has become concerning. Surveys conducted in health care settings are exposing an increase of alcoholism among those aged 65 and older, according to a report published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The NIAAA states that 6-11% of seniors being admitted to a hospital are exhibiting the signs of alcoholism.
The elderly may self-medicate with alcohol for reasons such as loneliness, boredom, or grieving. If the individual lives alone and there is no one there to monitor their alcohol consumption, it can put the person at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Signs of an alcohol use disorder might include some of the following:
- Drinking more than intended
- Increased tolerance to the effects that leads to increased consumption
- Tried to cut down on consumption but couldn’t
- Much of the day involves drinking or recovery from drinking
- Neglect family responsibilities
- No longer participating in hobbies and activities once enjoyed
- Increase in high-risk behaviors, such as driving while intoxicated
- Continue to drink even though negative consequences are mounting
- Lie about the amount of alcohol consumed, hiding alcohol
- Experience withdrawal effects when alcohol wears off
Generally, alcohol misuse leads to daily impairment in functioning and disruption in relationships. When at least three of the symptoms are present it may constitute an alcohol use disorder.
Getting Help for an Alcohol Use Disorder
When the signs of increased alcohol intolerance begin to cause daily impairment or even accidents it is time to seek treatment for the alcohol problem. Recovery begins with a medical detox during which the individual will abstain from alcohol and allow the body to purge the residual alcohol from the bloodstream and organs. The detox process is difficult to endure without medical support, as withdrawal symptoms can be highly uncomfortable.
The detox specialists are trained to oversee the client’s alcohol withdrawal symptoms and provide medical and psychological support that will greatly reduce the discomfort, guide them safely through the process, and prepare the client for transitioning to the active treatment portion of the rehab program.
Following completion of the medical detox process, the individual will be ready to begin treatment. Treatment for alcoholism involves an integrated approach accessing evidence-based psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, along with other activities that will complement the traditional therapies. This might include recreational therapy, holistic therapies, experiential activities, nutritional counseling, and relapse prevention strategizing.
Embracing a new healthy lifestyle is another predictor of recovery success. Individuals, regardless of age, who adopt healthy routines, such as getting regular exercise and eating a nutritious diet, find they begin to care more about their overall wellness, which helps to deter a relapse. As health is restored, individuals become more confident and content with their new lives in recovery.
Capo by the Sea Treats All Ages for Alcohol Use Disorder
Capo by the Sea is an elite addiction recovery program, serving individuals of all ages with a desire to overcome an alcohol use disorder. Capo by the Sea offers a unique blend of beautiful scenery, a premier clinical staff, luxury accommodations, and holistic spa-like activities that makes rehab comfortable. People choose Capo by the Sea because its staff exudes compassion and expertise, and treatment is obtained within a tranquil seaside setting. If you are experiencing increased alcohol intolerance, why not get the help you need and deserve? For more information about our program, please contact Capo by the Sea today at 888-529-2114.