Should Older Adults be Treated for Alcohol Abuse Disorder?

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Should Older Adults be Treated for Alcohol Abuse Disorder?

Jim Windell


           It is sad but true. Abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs by older adults and the elderly is a rapidly growing problem in the U.S.

           According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects as many as 17% of adults over the age of 60.

           However, alcohol abuse in those over the age of 60 is often minimized and even undiagnosed. This means they cannot receive the treatment they need.

           Why do older adults turn to substance in their later years of life? The reasons are several but can include life-changing events as well as health-related issues. Or, even just as a way of coping with the stressors of getting older or a decline of health.

           While younger people with substance abuse issues may be given treatment priority, perhaps because they have their whole lives in front of them, older adults with alcohol problems should not be ignored or neglected because their best years may be viewed as residing in the rear view mirror.

           The issues of alcohol treatment for older adults is the focus of a new study that was recently published in Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research. Prior studies have suggested that alcohol use disorder is under-detected and undertreated in older adults, possibly because healthcare providers may believe that treatment is unlikely to benefit older adults.

           The purpose of this multi-site study was to examine how treatment for alcohol use disorder affected the quality of life of adults aged 60 and older and whether quality of life outcomes differed by gender. Researchers analyzed data from a single-blind randomized control study of almost 700 adults aged 60 and older diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, conducted at sites in Denmark, Germany, and the U.S. from 2014 to 2016. Participants received weekly treatment for up to 12 sessions and were asked to report on various measures, including drinking and quality of life at four, 12, 26, and 52 weeks. Seventy-one percent of participants reported reductions in the number of days they drank.

           Results showed that older adults reported better overall health and quality of life after treatment for their alcohol use disorder. Both male and female study participants reported improvements in specific quality of life measures, including physical and psychological health, social relationships, and other environmental factors, including home environment, financial resources, and transportation). These improvements continued over time.

           In addition, the study found small but significant improvements after treatment throughout the year-long study in overall perceived health among study participants. Improvements in overall perceived quality of life were significant in the short-term; and specific quality of life domains saw improvements that were maintained: physical health, psychological health, social relationships, and environmental health. Gender was not associated with changes in any quality-of-life outcome measure.

           The study supports the value of treatment of alcohol use disorder in older men and women, whose alcohol use disorder tends to be misdiagnosed and undertreated. It also recognizes the benefit of screening and treating older adults for problem drinking and the value of quality-of-life measures in assessing treatment effectiveness.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Tryggedsson, J., Andersen, K., Behrendt, S., Bilberg, R., Bogenschutz, M., Buehringer, G. & Søgaard Nielsen, A. (2023). Improvement in quality of life among women and men aged 60 years and older following treatment for DSM-5 alcohol use disorder. Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, 47(10), 1952-1963.

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