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Published on July 25th, 2017 | by Deb Wolf

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Substance use in older adults on the rise

Current prEvents  – Times Argus – July 25, 2017

By Matt Whalen

For healthy adults age 65 and over, drinking more than one drink a day puts a person at risk of serious health problems. Seniors should drink even less, or not at all, if they already have health problems or are taking certain medications. This is an important concern especially since our senior population is growing.

According to the “State of Vermont Population Projections: 2010-2030” from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the number of Vermonters over the age of 65 will double by the year 2030. Currently at 15 percent, older adults make up the fastest growing segment of Vermont’s population. According to the 2000 Census, 78 million “baby boomers” were born in the U.S. from 1946-64. The Vermont Department of Health’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, and the Department of Aging and Independent Living are partnering to raise awareness about substance misuse and abuse in this rapidly growing population.

While older adults do not drink as much as other age groups on a national level, both the average amount of alcohol used and binge drinking are increasing among this demographic. According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), 20 percent of older adults in Vermont drink more than the recommended “safe levels,” compared to 18 percent nationally. The BRFSS defines “safe levels” as four drinks on one occasion for men, and three drinks on one occasion for women. Additionally, Vermont rates for chronic drinking, which is defined as more than 60 drinks a month for men and more than 30 drinks per month for women, are statistically higher than the national average — 4 percent nationally and 5 percent in Vermont.

These recommended levels apply to all age groups, but the safe levels for older adults are lower, due to decreased tolerance. The percentage of body water decreases with aging, resulting in a higher blood alcohol content per drink. Furthermore, metabolism and elimination slows. Organs such as the liver are more sensitive to alcohol. The percentage of older adults drinking more than safe or recommended levels would be higher if age-appropriate safe levels were used. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one alcoholic drink per day is the recommended limit for anyone over the age of 65 who has not been diagnosed with substance use disorder.

Older adults, even those using alcohol within the age-appropriate safe levels, are still at risk for adverse drug interactions. As people take more medications, the risk of harmful drug interactions increases. The unintentional misuse of prescription drugs, as they interact with other medications and alcohol, is the main cause of substance misuse in older adults. Sixty-five percent of older adults take three or more medications, compared to 21.4 percent in all ages. And 46 percent of individuals over the age of 65 take one to three different medications that interact with alcohol in a harmful way.

The signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse and abuse can present themselves similarly to that of normal aging. Memory trouble, changes in sleeping or eating habits, loss of coordination, irritability, sadness, and depression can all indicate an alcohol or medication interaction problem. It is important for family members, friends and caregivers to start conversations with older adults whom they suspect may be misusing or abusing alcohol and/or medication. Research indicates that education is very effective with older adults. Sharing a little information can have a powerful impact on an individual changing his or her behavior or deciding to seek help.

Tips for healthy aging and alcohol use:

— Eat food when you are drinking alcohol — don’t drink on an empty stomach.

— Sip your drink slowly.

— Avoid drinking alcohol when you are angry, upset or depressed.

— Reward yourself for not drinking — use the time and money usually spent on drinking to do something healthy you enjoy.

The Department of Health’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs Division (ADAP) and the Department of Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) are partnering to educate the community about substance misuse and abuse in older adults. ADAP substance abuse prevention consultants collaborated with DAIL’s elder substance abuse policy and operations manager to create a presentation on this topic. A local prevention consultant is available to present to community groups in Washington County and the surrounding area. To learn more call 802-479-4250.

Resources for older adults:

— The individual’s pharmacist and health care provider

— Senior Helpline: 1-800-642-5119

— Support and Services at Home (SASH): 1-802-863-2224

— VNAs of Vermont: 1-802-229-0579

— Recovery centers: 1-802-738-8998

— Alcoholics Anonymous: 1-802-295-7611

— Al-Anon: 1-877-972-5266

— Narcotics Anonymous: 1-802-773-5575

Matt Whalen is the substance abuse prevention consultant for the Vermont Department of Health at the Barre District Office.


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