Once you hit your 40s or 50s, you probably assume that you know what you’re doing when it comes to alcohol. Perhaps you hardly ever drink…or if you do imbibe, you know your limits. 

Watch out! These commonly held beliefs—as well as others—are causing growing numbers of older adults (generally those in their 60s and beyond) to get into trouble with alcohol.

An under-the-radar trend: While opioid addiction has captured headlines—and rightly so—problem drinking in older adults continues to grow at a frightening rate…but it’s not getting the notice it deserves. Shockingly, 72,000 people die in the US each year due to drug overdoses (the majority being opioids), while 88,000 annual deaths are attributed to alcohol. 

Why this matters: Heavy drinking is dangerous for anyone—but especially so in older adults, whose vulnerability to alcohol’s negative effects increases their risk for everything from diabetes, heart attack and stroke to kidney failure, liver disease, memory problems and osteoporosis.

What you need to know about this troubling trend…

A Problem That Keeps Growing

Research looking at the extent of excessive drinking among older adults continues to turn up worrisome results. 

For example, alcohol use disorder (AUD), a medical diagnosis for what is more commonly known as alcoholism, increased by a whopping 107% among older adults during a recent 10-year study period. 

Interestingly, the habit can be insidious, often taking hold only in one’s later years. Up to 15% of people don’t begin drinking excessively until they are older adults—often during retirement, research has shown. 

But the health consequences are severe and mounting among older adults. Alcohol-related visits to hospital emergency departments in the US rose by nearly 50% from 2006 to 2014—especially among females and drinkers who are middle-aged or older, shows a study published in 2018 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.    

Hidden Health Dangers

Though some studies over the years have linked moderate drinking with a lower risk for heart disease, newer research refutes the notion that alcohol offers any health benefits. 

A 2018 global study conducted by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at University of Washington found that there’s no safe level of drinking if you want to minimize your health risks. Indeed, dying from all causes—and cancer, in particular—rises with increasing levels of alcohol consumption. 

Meanwhile, older adults are vulnerable to unique health risks because aging bodies—even if they are in good shape—can’t process alcohol the same as younger bodies can. 

Another important factor:Older adults tend to use more medication (prescription and over-the-counter), which raises the risk for dangerous interactions with alcohol. For example, mixing alcohol with blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin), can cause gastrointestinal bleeding. Drinking while you’re taking heartburn medications, such as cimetidine (Tagamet) or ranitidine (Zantac), can interfere with alcohol metabolism, causing blood-alcohol levels to spike. When combined with alcohol, cold-and-flu drugs, pain relievers, antidepressants and sleep aids can have intensified medication side effects, such as drowsiness and trouble concentrating.   

Red Flags to Watch For

For a person to seek help for alcohol abuse, it requires the drinker to acknowledge that there’s a problem. But older adults may be blind to alcohol’s negative effects if they’re simply drinking the same amount they always have, and alcohol serves as a social lubricant they don’t want to give up.

Even if there are signs of problem drinking, they may be mistakenly attributed to “normal” effects of aging rather than the alcohol. So it may be up to others to spot the patterns of problem drinking in family members or friends. Some red flags

• They’re not meeting their obligations as well as they used to.

• They’re often late when formerly prompt.

• They’re opting out of social commitments due to illness, such as colds or the flu, which excessive drinking could be fueling by increasing inflammation levels in the body. 

Spotting Your Own Problem

If you think alcohol has become a problem for you—even if you’ve been drinking the same amount for years—try cutting back. Drink half your normal amounts…or try going a month without drinking. If you can’t, that may be the biggest sign yet to seek help. Consider counseling combined with medication. Also helpful: As a psychotherapeutic intervention, Alcoholics Anonymous has a high success rate.

Treatment options: FDA-approved medications for AUD can help you cut cravings and drink less. These medications include naltrexone (ReVia, Vivitrol)…acamprosate (Campral)…and disulfiram (Antabuse). Scientists also are working on genetic tests that can help pinpoint who’s most at risk for problem drinking, and which treatments may be most effective.