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How To Help an Alcoholic: Understanding Alcoholism in All Age Groups
It’s important to recognize the signs of alcoholism at every age and to take action to protect your physical, mental, emotional, and social health. If you want to know how to help an alcoholic, it’s essential that you understand the many aspects of this disease and the factors that affect it.
Alcoholism can be tricky to define because the substance affects each human body differently. Alcohol, a beverage technically referred to as ethyl alcohol, is classified as a drug because it affects every system of the human body. The liver processes alcohol but does so slowly, which means it can continue to circulate throughout the human body for several hours when consumed in large enough quantities.
While everyone tolerates this drug differently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define excessive drinking as consuming 15 or more servings of alcohol in a week for males and eight or more per week for females. However, this can vary depending on:
- The age of the drinker
- Pregnancy status
- The type and size of the drinks consumed
- The amount of alcohol consumed in a single sitting
- The overall blood alcohol content of the drinker
For most people, consuming more than four drinks within a two-hour time frame or drinking on a daily basis falls into the category of excessive drinking as well. Over time, excessive drinking can lead to alcoholism and even alcohol dependence.
The Signs of Alcohol Dependence
Many people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol do so because of the depressive effects it has on the human body. It tends to widen blood vessels and cause a feeling of relaxation and inhibition, even in small amounts. However, alcohol abuse can lead to the inability to function without feeling its “calming effects” on an almost constant basis. Over time, the body can become dependent on the drug. Some of the warning signs of alcohol dependence include:
- An increase in tolerance that leads to more consumption to achieve the desired effect
- Physical withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, sweating, or physical pain
- Irritability that worsens when not drinking
- Strong, irresistible cravings for alcohol
- The inability to stop or limit alcohol consumption
- Feelings of anxiousness or panic when access to alcohol is limited
- Choosing to drink over other activities and relationships
- Obsessing over alcohol
Once dependence sets in, it can be even more challenging to break the habit. You can also be at serious risk for many severe problems. To know how to help an alcoholic, you should first be able to recognize these signs, especially among those who are unaware or in denial.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), over 85% of the adult population in the United States has consumed alcohol at some point in their lives. This is not surprising, as alcohol is a prevalent and easily accessible drug. In 2019, an estimated 14.5 million people had some type of alcohol use disorder. Sadly this includes individuals as young as the age of 12. It’s estimated that around 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year, and women are twice as likely to experience fatal complications as men. Alcohol misuse also costs the United States economy billions of dollars annually.
Understanding Alcoholism in All Age Groups
A Video overview of alcohol use disorder in different age groups and subtypes.
Understanding the Alcoholism Subtypes
While every person and situation is unique, most cases of alcohol abuse and dependence can be grouped into one of five main categories as designated by the NIAAA. Even though all share a common addiction, the studies that researchers performed to develop this classification system have helped refute the popular myth that a “typical alcoholic” exists.
Young Adult Subtype
Most American alcoholics fall into this category, a total of 31.5% of the overall group. This subtype includes young adult drinkers who may often consume more than the recommended amount of alcohol in social situations on a routine basis.
Young Antisocial Subtype
21% of alcoholics in the United States are considered “young antisocial”. This refers to people who are in their mid-twenties or close to it and abuse alcohol when alone. They may have some type of mental health issue, specifically depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. People in this group are more likely to have a family history of alcohol abuse and may have started drinking at a young age.
People often refer to a functional alcoholic as a person with a serious drinking problem that is still able to function in work and social settings. 19.5% percent of alcoholics in the United States are considered functional and around half tend to smoke as well.
Intermediate Familial Subtype
19% of alcoholics are middle-aged and have a family history of alcohol abuse. This group is referred to as intermediate familial and most in this category never seek help. Nearly half of the people in this subtype also deal with some type of depression.
Chronic Severe Subtype
People in this group have the highest rate of a variety of factors that can impact alcohol abuse, including:
- A family history of alcohol misuse
- Alcohol misuse that begins at an early age
- Mental health issues
- Criminal activity
- Addiction to other drugs or substances
While only 9% of alcoholics fall into the group, most seek treatment at some point in time, making them the most prevalent subtype in many addiction recovery and rehabilitation centers.
Alcoholism By Age Group
While many people associate alcoholism with young and middle-aged adults, this disease directly impacts people from all stages of life, from fetal development all the way through senior adulthood.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
The CDC recommends that pregnant women not consume alcohol in any amount because of the risk of developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Alcohol can be absorbed by the fetus in utero and can lead to numerous serious complications, including:
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, and early labor
- Improper physical development
- Smaller than normal size and weight in newborns
- Difficulty feeding and gaining weight after birth
- Speech delays
- Learning disabilities
- Auditory and visual issues
- Lower than average IQ
- Trouble with memory and attention
- Increased risks for heart, bone, and kidney problems
There is no known amount of alcohol that has been tested and declared safe to consume by expectant mothers. Therefore, alcohol consumption of any kind during pregnancy should be considered dangerous. Those who are pregnant and struggle with any type of alcohol abuse or dependency can place themselves and their babies at high risk for harm.
The legal age to consume alcohol in the United States is 21, but a 2019 study by the NIAAA found that approximately seven million people between the ages of 12 and 20 reported that they had consumed more than just a few sips of alcohol within the past month. Teenage drinking continues to be a serious concern, as people in this age group are far more likely to participate in binge drinking. In fact, in the same study on underage drinking, 4.2 million admitted to binge drinking within the past month.
This practice involves consuming multiple drinks or “bingeing” in a short period of time, usually in less than two hours. For most people, this means drinking more than four or five servings in close succession, which then leads to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08% or more. Impaired judgment and observable effects on the systems of the body begin at just 0.02%. In many states, it is illegal to operate a vehicle with a BAC level over 0.05%. A blood alcohol content level over 0.40% can be lethal, although serious damage can start to occur well before this level is reached.
A teen who starts drinking before the legal age is more susceptible to alcoholism during adulthood. The consequences of underage drinking can also be tragic, especially in this age group, as it increases the risks for:
- Serious injury
- Problems with brain development
- Becoming a perpetrator or victim of sexual assault
Understanding how to help an alcoholic in their teenage years requires support, compassion, and commitment from parents, teachers, and the entire community.
Excessive alcohol consumption is most prevalent in the adult population. Over half of adults over the age of 18 consume alcohol on at least a monthly basis. Of this group, about half also engage in binge drinking at least once within that same period of time. Alcoholism is dangerous at every age, and it puts people in this age category more at risk for injuries and fatalities, as well as certain diseases and cancers.
Alcoholism in the Elderly
While it may not be the first group that comes to mind when considering alcohol abuse and dependence, the elderly can be very high risk for alcoholism. This can be due to a variety of factors, including:
- Chronic pain
- Higher sensitivity to alcohol’s effects
- Preexisting medical conditions
- Regular medication use, some of which can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol
- Memory issues, which can result in accidental excessive drinking
- High risks for depression
Recent studies have shown that alcohol abuse among senior adults has been on the rise since 1997, with 20% of people between the ages of 60 and 64 affirming that they do currently binge drink. 11% of people ages 65 and older also participate in this dangerous and harmful activity.
Underlying Causes, Effects, and Risks of Alcoholism
There is no singular reason that a person may become an alcoholic, but there are plenty of situations that increase the risks of developing this condition, including:
- A mental illness or issue, including anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia
- High stress levels
- Increased peer pressure
- A history of trauma or abuse
- A parent or family member with alcoholism
- A home or community with easy access to alcohol
In addition, alcoholism itself increases the risks for other serious issues, medically, emotionally, and socially.
Is Alcoholism Genetic?
People who have a family history of alcohol abuse are more likely to develop the same problem during their lifetime. For these individuals, abstinence is often recommended. However, studies have shown that the genes that may make a person more prone to an alcohol use disorder are only responsible for about half of the risks of developing alcoholism. Environmental factors play just as significant of a role, if not more so in some individuals.
Understanding the genetics of a propensity for alcohol dependence has more to do with how a person’s metabolism is structured. Some are able to process it quickly, while in others, it lingers and recirculates throughout the body’s system for an extended period of time. On the other hand, some people’s genes cause them to experience adverse reactions to even minimal amounts of alcohol, such as nausea and an increased heart rate. These individuals may be less likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Either way, there is no specific gene that causes alcoholism in an individual.
What Are the Connections Between Domestic Abuse and Alcohol?
One 2019 study showed that men who were alcohol dependent were six times more likely to abuse their female partners. Alcohol consumption in even small amounts can impair judgement and lead to poor decision making skills. Even a normally level-headed person with an elevated blood alcohol content level could become violent in certain conditions. Alcohol dependence can also lead to increased irritability, which can lead to abusive outbursts in some situations.
What Are the Health Risks of Alcoholism?
People who consume alcohol in excess with any type of regularity are more at risk for numerous health issues and diseases, such as:
- Injuries from vehicle accidents
- Pregnancy issues
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Alcohol poisoning
- A variety of cancers
- Cardiovascular issues
- Liver disease
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immune system
- Mental issues, including memory loss, dementia, and depression
While some have said that drinking a glass of red wine once a day is good for your health, no studies have shown that long-term alcohol consumption is beneficial or healthy.
How Does Alcohol Affect Families?
Around 10% of children under the age of 18 affirm that they live in a home with a caregiver who has an alcohol use disorder. This puts young children more at risk for economic hardships, abuse that is verbal, physical, and/or sexual in nature, and emotional issues. Children who see excessive drinking in the home are more likely to abuse alcohol, both underage and later in life. Alcoholism can cause great pain and dysfunction in many families, regardless of their background.
While living with an alcoholic parent can be difficult for children and teenagers, many adults also struggle with the effects of this issue, even if they no longer live in the same home. Unfortunately, alcohol dependent people may continue to manipulate and abuse their children as they continue to age. Adult Children Of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACOA), offers support and encouragement for people who have dealt with an alcoholic caregiver and are seeking help and healing.
How To Help an Alcoholic: The First Steps
If someone you love is struggling with alcoholism, there are steps you can take to set them on the path towards recovery.
- Learn to understand the definition of alcohol misuse and recognize the true signs of alcoholism.
- Speak honestly with your loved one about your concerns. Take the time to prepare and write down your thoughts and choose an appropriate time and setting to have this conversation.
- Listen to their troubles and concerns with kindness and empathy, not judgment.
- Offer support by providing accountability, checking in often, and offering to take them to a support group.
- If the signs of alcohol dependence and addiction are present, detox and rehabilitation in a controlled environment under the care and supervision of medical and addiction experts is the safest and most effective path toward recovery. Most physicians and experts do not recommend trying to detox without input from a medical professional first. In this situation, help your loved one talk with an expert who can help.
In the meantime, there are also practices you may want to avoid, such as drinking or discussing alcohol in front of your loved one. While helping them stick to their goals is important, shaming can do more harm than good. Also, if your loved one needs financial assistance, make sure that any money you contribute is going directly towards their recovery and not other expenses. Most of all, know where to draw boundaries; in many situations, professional help is best.
Learn How To Help an Alcoholic With Clean Recovery Centers
If you or someone you know is trapped in the downward spiral of alcohol addiction, Clean Recovery Centers can help. Our team of experts and premier facilities provide a safe and caring environment for addicts to find freedom and hope in all areas of life. Our well-rounded program offers counseling, health care, skill-building, and more to set every client on the path to success. Contact us today to learn more about the programs and treatment options we offer for alcoholism and other types of substance abuse disorders.