Problem Drinking Is Growing Fast Among Older Americans

Alcoholism More Than Doubles In a Decade

Epidemiologists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism last month announced a jarring trend: Problem drinking is growing fast among older Americans.

According to a New York Times report, the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, compared data from a national survey taken in 2001 and 2002 and again in 2012 and 2013, each time with roughly 40,000 adults. Drinking had increased in every age group, the researchers found.

However, the proportion of older adults involved in “high-risk drinking” jumped 65 percent, to 3.8 percent. Alcoholism more than doubled in a decade, afflicting over 3 percent of older people.

Why this spike in late-life drinking? Some researchers speculate that anxiety caused by the recession, which hit right between the two surveys, may have played a part.

Other experts point to demographic differences. People in their 60s and early 70s are less frail than in previous generations—so they continue their drinking patterns. Moreover, Baby Boomers have been more exposed to, and are less disapproving of, drug and alcohol use.

Alcohol abuse remains undertreated in all age groups, but especially in older demographics. Part of the mythology of late-life drinking is that old people can’t or won’t change their long-time behavior.

But with treatment, older adults have the same or better success rates as younger drinkers. According to the study, seniors were far more likely to adhere to treatment. Although 40 percent relapsed during the 12-week trial, nearly two-thirds of younger patients did.