As a society, we share a complicated history with alcohol. During the later part of the 19th century, politicians, women’s groups, and churches banded together to convince lawmakers to outlaw alcohol. In 1919, the U.S. Congress passed the 18th Amendment, making the sale and distribution of alcohol illegal. Alcohol consumption declined but did not prevent illegal use and distribution. In 1933, Prohibition ended and as a result, millions of Americans have made alcohol an important part of their social activity. In the 1960s, researcher E.M. Jellinek reported that excessive and abusive use of alcohol was a disease. Within 10 years, a public effort was launched in the United States to educate people that alcoholism was an illness.

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 3rd refined the definition of alcoholism by differentiating between alcohol abuse and dependence. However, people continue to use the term “alcoholism” when they discuss all forms of “problem drinking,” when in fact alcoholism and abuse have specific clinical definitions. Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a chronic, progressive, and potentially a fatal disease. The symptoms are: drinking excessive amounts frequently, inability to control drinking despite medical, psychological, or social complications, increased tolerance for alcohol, and serious withdrawal symptoms when the person stop drinking.

On the other hand, alcohol abuse is a chronic disease in which the individual refuses to give up drinking even though it causes the person to neglect important family and work obligations. However, abuse, left untreated, can become dependence. The symptoms are: drinking when it is dangerous (drinking and driving), frequent excessive drinking, interpersonal difficulties with family, friends, and coworkers caused by alcohol, and legal problems related to alcohol use.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that in 1998, alcoholism cost society $184.6 billion in lost productivity, medical care, legal services, and cost from traffic accidents. However, these statistics does not address the cost, to society, or the problem of alcohol dependence among the elderly the “hidden population.”

It seems that alcohol abuse among older adults is something few wish to talk about, and a problem for which even fewer seek treatment on their own. Too often, family members are ashamed of the problem and choose not to confront it head on. Health care providers tend not to ask older patients about alcohol use if it wasn’t a problem in their lives in earlier years. This may explain why so many of the alcohol-related admissions to treatment among older adults are for first-time treatment.

Recent studies indicated that between 1.1 and 2.3 million elderly citizens use alcohol to alleviate grief and loneliness. What has been called the “invisible population” is now being discovered and measured. Most individuals tend to restrict their alcohol intake as they advance in age, mainly because of poor health or reduced social activities. However, society has begun to recognize that the incidence of alcoholism among older individuals is on the rise. Despite the numerous studies being done on this subject it is difficult to find reliable statistics on today’s elderly alcoholics. However, some research suggested that as much as 10% to 15% of health problems in this population may be connected to alcohol and substance abuse.

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