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Over 50 and Almost Alcoholic?

Boomer trends to keep an eye on.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking among seniors age 50 and older is on the rise. In fact, seniors make up the segment of the population for whom drinking has been increasing the most. Why might that be a problem? Because as we age, our bodies metabolize alcohol more slowly. That means that alcohol (a toxic agent and designated carcinogen) stays in the body longer, where it can exacerbate medical conditions such as hypertension, memory loss, diabetes, and neurological problems.

A second trend, pointed out in The New Old Age blog of The New York Times on March 2, is the significant increase, over the past 40 years, in the percentage of seniors (from 13 percent to 33 percent) who are either divorced or separated. Are these trends merely coincidental, or might there be a connection?

Drinking "a few" drinks a day might not seem to be a problem. And lest I be misread, I am definitely not saying that all of these boomers are alcoholics. However, the fact is that as we age, our bodies metabolize alcohol more slowly. That means that alcohol (a toxic agent and designated carcinogen) remains in our bodies longer. While there, it can exacerbate medical conditions such as hypertension, memory loss, diabetes, and neurological problems, all of which are more common among older adults.

Though they may be far from dependent on alcohol, and equally far from meeting the criteria for a diagnosis, a significant percentage of boomers may also have gone beyond what could be called "normal social drinking," meaning a cocktail, a beer, or a glass of wine once or twice a week, often in the company of friends. On the contrary, a great many of these seniors drink every day. They are not alcoholics, but many of them may very well have moved into the almost alcoholic zone.

What is the "Almost Alcoholic" zone?

Almost alcoholics fall in the "gray zone" that occupies the fairly large space that separates normal social drinking from drinking that would qualify for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence (alcoholism). Some people's drinking will place them fairly deeply into the almost alcoholic zone, whereas others may have only recently ventured there. That space is depicted in the following diagram:

Almost alcoholic drinking, especially among seniors, is most often defined by the following circumstances and by the fact that they engage in these behaviors on a daily or nearly daily basis:

The above was certainly true for Laura, whose husband Brad had died two years earlier following a four-year battle with colon cancer. Married 42 years, they'd raised two sons, both of whom had families of their own, and both of whom lived many hours and many miles away.

Despite being invited by both sons to do so, Laura decided against selling the house and moving. She had a circle of friends, she told her sons, and in addition she did not relish the idea of cleaning out her possessions, leaving the house she and Brad had occupied for most of their married lives, and assimilating to a new community.

So Laura stayed in the house, in the company of a cat she decided to adopt from a woman in her church. She found "Henry" to be a good companion. She also made a point of going to church every week, and continued with a book club she'd been part of for many years. Despite all of these things, Laura admitted she often felt lonely. Moreover, although her own health was holding up well, some of her closest friends were less fortunate. The net result was that her social life was slowly but steadily dwindling.

As her social life dwindled, Laura's drinking increased. Whereas she once drank strictly at social occasions, she now found that a brandy or two at night helped. To quote her, "It settles my nerves."

What Laura was doing, of course, was compensating for her loneliness by drinking. The amount of brandy she drank slowly crept up on her, until two events happened. First, her oldest son asked, during their weekly phone call, if Laura had been drinking. He politely but firmly pointed out that she was slurring her words. Embarrassed, Laura replied that she'd had a brandy that day, as the weather was cold and she felt a chill. In truth, she'd downed four brandies over the course of that Sunday afternoon.

About a month later Laura walked down her driveway to fetch the newspaper. On the way back she tripped and fell, bruising her leg. The pain was bad enough that she decided to drive to the local emergency room. While she was there, awaiting the results the house of a CT scan, the doctor asked her how much she'd been drinking that afternoon. Again, Laura was embarrassed, this time even more so because the doctor told her he was concerned enough that he would not allow her to drive herself home. Humiliated, Laura was forced to call a church friend, who came and drove her home.

Laura's case is hardly unusual. On the contrary, among her peers she has lots of company, perhaps millions, who are turning increasingly to alcohol as a way of compensating for loneliness, boredom, pain, or stress. They may not be alcoholics, but they are "almost" alcoholics. Most importantly, their physical and/or emotional health is suffering as a consequence of their drinking, but they do not see that connection.

Seniors need to decide for themselves if their drinking has moved into the almost alcoholic zone, and if so, how far. With that insight, they are in a position to make decisions about what, if anything, they want to change.

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