THURSDAY, June 10, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Drinking rose among older Americans during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that could put their health at risk, claim researchers behind a new poll.
"As we all toast the end of the worst part of the pandemic in our country, it's important to address or prevent problematic drinking of all kinds," said one of the pollsters, Anne Fernandez, a University of Michigan psychologist who specializes in studying alcohol use.
More than 2,000 adults ages 50 to 80 were questioned in late January, when COVID-19 case rates were high nationwide and vaccination of older adults had just begun.
About 14% of respondents who drink alcohol said their drinking increased during the first 10 months of the pandemic.
But the rate was much higher among the minority who said they drink as part of their routine, to improve their mood or to relax, or to cope with boredom, stress or pain, according to the university's National Poll on Healthy Aging.
A third to half of those adults said they drank more in the past year. Those who reported feeling isolated or lonely were also more likely to report increases in drinking.
Half of the respondents said they mainly drink for social reasons, and they were more likely to say their drinking decreased in 2020. This suggests that as socializing increases with the easing of the pandemic, their drinking may increase, the poll authors said.
Overall, 23% of respondents who drink alcohol said they routinely had three or more drinks in one sitting, and 10% said they use other drugs while drinking, including marijuana or prescription medications that can have harmful interactions with alcohol.
Routinely having three or more alcoholic drinks on any day, and occasional binge drinking, are both considered signs of problematic drinking in any adult, the researchers noted.
"Even before the pandemic, heavier and more risky drinking habits were increasing in older adults at a faster rate than among younger adults," Fernandez said in a university news release.
"Not every older adult who drank more during the past year may have gone from non-risky to risky drinking, but the overall level of drinking, and the potential for interaction with other substances, is very concerning," she said.
The body's ability to process alcohol changes with age, explained poll director Dr. Preeti Malani, a Michigan Medicine infectious disease physician also trained in geriatrics.
The same amount of alcohol that older adults consumed in the past may affect them differently now, resulting in balance problems that could lead to falls and other injuries. Also, long-term drinking can accelerate age-related immune system decline and memory loss.
"We get especially concerned when older adults are drinking multiple drinks at a sitting, so the 20% of older men who said they drink three to four alcoholic drinks on a typical day of drinking is concerning," Malani said.
"And 27% of those who drink said that at least once in the past year, they had had six or more drinks -- which is a 'binge' level of alcohol consumption that is risky at any age, but more so as we age," Malani added.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about aging and alcohol.
SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, June 9, 2021