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Up to one-tenth of Americans over the age of 65 may have alcohol-abuse problems, but very few treatment and prevention programs target senior citizens.

Alcoholism in senior citizens can be a deadly problem, according to Frederick E. Blow, research director at the University of Michigan Alcohol Research Center.Alcohol has a "greater potency in older persons, who are more sensitive to and less tolerant of alcohol," said Blow, who was in Salt Lake City Thursday to address the fourth national conference of the National Prevention Network.

And senior citizens, who make up 12 percent of the national population, consume between one-quarter and one-third of all prescription drugs. Many of those substances are dangerous when combined with alcohol, according to Blow. Citizens older than 60 use half of all remedies, including over-the-counter drugs.

Alcoholism and drug abuse by senior citizens are less visible than that of adolescents, because people who are elderly are generally more sedate than teenagers, he said. And people have attitudes that contribute to the problem - "Mother has nothing else, so why not let her drink? It makes her happy."

Often, people don't want to recognize the problem in senior citizens, so they attribute the symptoms to something else. And, in fact, the symptoms - dehydration, malnutrition, recurring falls, inattention to self and surroundings, increased forgetfulness, irritability, mood swings, confusion, sleeping problems and anxiety - can actually be caused by something else, including the aging process."The symptoms are much more subtle in older people," Blow said.

Two-thirds of senior citizens who abuse alcohol have been doing so since they were much younger. The other third generally began drinking as a reaction to significant events like the death of a spouse or to combat loneliness.

A study of 23,000 people admitted to Veterans Administration hospitals for alcohol treatment showed that a "very large number of those who drink have a psychological disorder." But that study and others also showed that there are "inadequate measurement tools" to really assess the extent of the alcohol-elderly connection, he said.

Blow cites one specific need - prevention is crucial, particularly as the so-called Baby Boom generation approaches senior-citizen status. By 2030, 20 to 22 percent of the U.S. population will be over 60.

"We need to start acting now to better understand how to prevent alcohol and drug problems," Blow said.


(Additional information)

CAGE -- a way to spot abuse\

Experts say that the CAGE Assessment is one of the most effective ways to screen senior citizens for alcohol abuse. Taken from an acronym made up of key words, CAGE is said to be effective in 60 percent of cases.

C - Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

A - Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

G - Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

E - Have you ever taken a drink first thing in the morning - an eye-opener - to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

Positive answers to two or more of the questions suggest you may have a problem with drinking. The test is said to be more effective in a hospital setting than in a community setting.