Elderly at Risk for Chronic Alcohol Abuse

an elderly man seated at a kitchen table pouring himself a drink of hard liquor

Elderly at Risk for Chronic Alcohol Abuse


According to Dr. Sally Rigler of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, one-third of elderly alcoholic persons develop their problem with alcohol in later life while the other two-thirds have had problems with alcohol for the majority of their lives. Alcohol has adverse effects on the body, which become more severe as the alcoholic becomes older. Aside from the physical ailments that an older alcoholic may experience, cognitive functioning is greatly impacted by heavy drinking. Alcohol addiction treatment may be necessary to eliminate alcohol abuse in the elderly, as they are at serious risk for brain damage and cognitive deterioration.

Alcohol and the Elderly

Alcoholism among the elderly population is a more common problem than most people think. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 20-30% of people ages 75 to 85 have an alcohol problem. Oftentimes, individuals’ problems go unnoticed because elderly people are isolated from their families or retired and their excessive drinking does not interfere with any occupational obligations. Retired alcoholics may fund their drinking habit with social security or retirement checks. Elderly people may abuse alcohol as a way to help them cope with:

  • Depression
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • Physical pain

Cultural differences can complicate an elderly person’s beliefs about family involvement and, therefore, his or her path towards seeking alcohol addiction treatment. Many times, the elderly don’t want to impose their troubles onto their children and suffer in silence. However, as these individuals continue to drink, their quality of life decreases and they feel more pain and suffering. Alcohol addiction treatment helps elderly alcoholics address their alcoholism as well as underlying problems, helping them improve their quality of life.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Alcoholism

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory. Heavy alcohol drinking accelerates atrophy, or shrinkage, of the brain, which is seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease and chronic alcohol use can cause:

  • Difficulty speaking and writing coherently
  • Impaired judgment and problem solving
  • Inability to complete familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Muscle rigidity

Alzheimer’s disease lowers life expectancy and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. AD progressively gets worse over time and currently has no cure. Alcohol abuse may speed up or worsen Alzheimer’s in an addict because alcohol interferes with neurotransmitters in the brain, which may lead to profound personality changes in a person with AD.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease

Alcohol amnestic disorder, also referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is another consequence that an elderly alcoholic may experience. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are:

  • Confusion
  • Ataxia (Loss of muscle coordination)
  • Vision changes
  • Severe loss of short-term memory
  • Inability to form new memories
  • Confabulation (False perceptions or memories)
  • Hallucinations

Alzheimer’s disease and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are debilitating and can cause an alcoholic to lose autonomy. This can make alcoholics even more depressed because they may feel like a burden to others. Caring for individuals with AD and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome must be constant since they may become a danger to themselves or others. This type of around the clock care is expensive and may cause financial hardship.

Treating the Elderly Alcoholic

Seeking treatment for alcohol addiction can help an elderly person avoid conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome that can leave him or her sick and unable to take care of him or herself. As the first step in a recovery program, the elderly alcoholic should go through alcohol detox because alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. Following alcohol detox, the elderly alcoholic should attend alcohol addiction treatment to help address the underlying issues of addiction. Alcohol abuse is a behavior that people can change and seeking treatment at an alcohol rehab center can help elderly alcoholics lead to a higher quality of life.

Call Now and Make the Best Choice of Your Life

If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol addiction and would like more information about a quality drug and alcohol rehab, please call a Stepping Stone Center coordinator now at 866-957-4960. Our coordinators are able to answer any questions that you may have regarding addiction treatment, as many of them are in recovery themselves.