Alcohol-related Problems in Older Persons

Determinants, Consequences, and Screening

Published in: Archives of Internal Medicine, v. 156, no. 11, June 10, 1996, p. 1150-1156

Posted on RAND.org on June 01, 1996

by Arlene Fink, Ron D. Hays, Alison A. Moore, John Beck

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Demographic trends reveal the elderly to be the fastest growing segment of the population. Physicians can therefore anticipate encountering increasing numbers of older patients with alcohol-related problems. These problems include liver disease, dementia, confusion (masquerading as dementia), peripheral neuropathy, insomnia, late-onset seizure disorder, poor nutrition, incontinence, diarrhea, myopathy, inadequate self-care, macrocytosis, depression, fractures, and adverse reactions to medications. Despite the prevalence of alcohol use in older people, their risks and problems are often unrecognized. We reviewed published literature on the determinants and consequences of alcohol-related problems in persons aged 65 years and older and the usefulness of available screening measures. Thirteen of 25 eligible studies on determinants and consequences met quality criteria and were reviewed. Nine additional studies on screening tests were also evaluated. Determinants include history of alcohol use and abuse, social isolation, and reduced mobility; consequences consist of risks of hip fracture from falls, neoplasms, and psychiatric illness. Currently accessible screening tests focus on high levels of alcoholic beverage use and abuse and dependence. They are not useful in screening for hazardous consumption that may result from relatively low levels of alcohol use alone or in combination with medications, medical illness, or preexisting diminished physical, emotional, or social function. Research is needed on the consequences of lower levels of alcohol consumption on the physical and psychosocial health of older individuals and on methods for distinguishing alcohol-related from age-related problems. Existing screening tests should be expanded or new screening methods developed in anticipation.

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