Most older adults with drinking problems begin drinking in adolescence or early adulthood and continue to drink throughout their lives. However, an estimated one-third of older alcoholics drink sensibly, in moderation, until later life when divorce, widowhood, depression, boredom, financial problems, loneliness, grief, loss of purpose, chronic pain or ill health compel a change in drinking habits. Alcohol dependency, which begins later in life (after age 50), is referred to as late onset alcoholism.
The progression from moderate drinking to alcoholism occurs quickly in older adults, who have slower metabolism and decreased tolerance than they did in their younger years. Because the body retains less water and the concentration of alcohol in the tissues is greater, older adults are more sensitive to smaller amounts of alcohol and become intoxicated rapidly. These unexpected changes often take older drinkers by surprise.
Late onset alcoholism differs from early onset alcoholism in several ways. For example, late onset alcoholics:
- are often women.
- tend to have a higher socioeconomic status than early onset alcoholics.
- are less likely to have a family history of addiction than early onset problem drinkers.
Like early onset alcoholics, alcoholism that begins in later life can exacerbate chronic illnesses such as diabetes or high blood pressure. However, although there are always exceptions, late onset alcoholics are less likely to experience alcohol-related diseases such as cirrhosis, and they are less likely to be affected by alcohol-related cognitive damage but they experience falls, injuries, loss of daily structure, decreased cognitive functioning, appetite, sleeping problems and many others.