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October 22, 2014

Secret Senior Drinkers

Ask someone how much they drink, and the answer they'll give you may not jibe with the number of bottles in the trash.

Drinking is rarely considered much of a problem among the elderly. The perception seems to be that heavy drinkers die or reform before getting to older ages.

But drinking in the elderly can pose a significant health problem, particularly among the elderly poor, according to researchers at San Diego State University.

Thanks to a tip from some social workers at a residential senior center, the researchers used a sort of sneaky and ingenious method to gain insights into how much seniors were really drinking.

Little research has been done specifically on drinking in older people. Researchers have examined drinking among college students or binge drinking, not the elderly, when conducting alcohol studies. Those studies that did include older people have yielded limited information on their drinking habits.

Social workers at the facility did not believe the survey numbers. They took the researchers down to the basement of the building, showing them all the empty beer cans and liquor bottles in the trash.

Older people can become impaired at lower alcohol levels than younger people. They also often have health problems that their younger counterparts don't have and are more likely to be taking medications which interact with alcohol. All this can cause complications from drinking not seen in younger people.

Researchers looked at 174 residents of a low-income residential senior center and found that drinking tended to spike around the time of month when residents received their social security checks. While the drinking rates weren't quite as high as those found in younger people, they were still high enough to cause concern.

Initially, the researchers administered surveys to the residents, asking how much they drank and when they did their drinking. But the social workers at the facility did not believe the survey numbers. They took the researchers to the basement of the building, showing them all the empty beer cans and liquor bottles in the trash. Clearly someone had been drinking them.

Sometimes, seeing really is believing.

So researchers started a bogus recycling program at the center, which enabled them to count the discarded cans and bottles and get a more objective measure of how much the residents were drinking.

We often hear about drinking done by younger people because it creates a nuisance in the community, such as loud noise late at night. But drinking by older people tends to be under the radar.

The authors hope their study will lead to more research into drinking among the elderly who frequently suffer from depression. And that it will encourage older people and their family members to ask more questions of their doctor about the many health issues their drinking raises.

An article on the study appears in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

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