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Alcoholism Among Older Adults

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Alcoholism among Older Adults

The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) defines alcoholism as a disorder characterized by the excessive consumption of and dependence on alcoholic beverages, leading to physical and psychological harm and impaired social and vocational functioning. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is also characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, mostly denial that the problem exists. It is important to take into consideration that the effects of alcohol abuse are drastically increased in the elderly, due to the physiological and psychological changes that occur with aging (American Medical Association, 1995).

An older adult is defined as a person 60 and older, although there is no specific age cut off at which all age related changes occur. The issue is rather subjective because all humans are different, thus a 70-year-old can have "the spine of an 80-year-old, a heart typical of a 60-year-old, and a central nervous system equal in functioning to an average 60-year-old" (Altpeter, Schmall, Rakowski, Swift, Campbell, 1994). Nevertheless changes do occur, leaving elderly more vulnerable to harmful results of drinking ensuing from smaller dosages of the drug.

"In the United States, it is estimated that 2.5 million older adults have problems related to alcohol" (Schonfeld & Dupree, 1995). In 1990 those over 65 made up 13 percent of the population; by the year 2030, this number will increase to 21 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). This projected incline is primarily the result that comes with aging of the "Baby Boomer" generation, as well as the increase of the average living expectancy for humans due to technological and medical advances.

Drinking can be classified into three categories; early onset, late onset and intermittent. Early onset drinkers are usually those who began using alcohol earlier in life. Contrary to this, late onset drinkers have most likely taken up drinking in response to events that might have caused an unexpected change in their daily life such as: a loss of a family member, work dilemma, change in health status, etc. Intermittent abusers use alcohol irregularly but often to excess. Binging among younger adults, but not limited to them, is a proper example of this type of drinking. Late onset drinking is usually more amenable to treatment than early onset drinking problems (Atkinson & Ganzini, 1994). With proper help and quick course of action late onset drinkers can be transformed, although it is here where the dilemma is situated.

For the most part alcoholism among the elderly was overlooked. The so called "hidden population" was never sufficiently cared for when it came to alcohol abuse. Due to insufficient knowledge and research data physicians disregarded the problem. It is possible that doctors could not diagnose elderly with alcohol abuse because the symptoms often resemble other medical problems common among this population. These include insomnia, depression, and poor concentration. Also senior citizens are no longer active in mainstream society and there is simply no one around to notice. They don't necessarily have the pressures that younger people have especially those of keeping a job or getting in trouble with the law, which usually reveal the problem.

Substance abuse is also a problem for the healthcare industry regarding finances. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)

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