Most Common Indicators: How to Identify if a Patient is Misusing a Substance

For many Baby Boomers, the free-love, easy-going lifestyle of their younger years is starting to catch up to them. The aches and pains of aging are to be expected. These symptoms can often lead to alcohol misuse among older adults.

As people age, the addition of medication becomes a part of life. Many don’t realize the pharmacologic changes associated with aging. While it is never recommended to mix alcohol and prescription or over-the-counter medications, the potential harm is more serious among elderly persons.

Alcohol misuse is an under diagnosed chronic illness on the rise among older adults in the United States. Thanks in part to the large population size and high substance use rate by the baby-boom generation, the number of adults aged 50 or older with substance use disorder is projected to be nearing the 5.7 million mark in 2020. That rate is nearly double what it was during the previous decade.

This trend is extremely important to understand as health related problems continue to increase and occur in the aging population. Alcohol misuse can have effects on all major organs (especially the liver), increase vitals (such blood pressure and blood glucose levels), and impair cognitive function.

Research into substance use among the elderly suggests the need for caregivers to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in the aging population. These include:

  • Cognitive decline. Unable to concentrate and focus on daily task.
  • Not paying attention to ADL’s. Decline in personal hygiene or ability to care for one’s self.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Missing important events, appointments, or treatments.
  • Increased accidents or falls.
  • Unexplained vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.
  • Episodes of unexplained delirium- increase in restlessness, illusions, and incoherence thought and speech.
  • Increased arguments with family members and friends.
  • Evidence of increase alcohol use such as empty bottles or cans.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that adults over age 65 who are healthy and do not take medications should not have more than three drinks on a given day or seven drinks in a week.

Being able to recognize these signs and having open discussion with a loved one are the two most important things that a caregiver can do. Symptoms for alcohol misuse can often mimic signs and symptoms of other illnesses, such as UTI’s or dementia.

When in doubt make sure a love ones primary care provider is contacted to discuss any concerns that have arisen. During that discussion, ask about having a loved one screened for alcohol misuse if needed.

Remember there is help available.

For more information about Alcohol Screeners, please visit our Behavioral Health page.