The definition and criteria for alcoholism is up for discussion, and the debate is also bringing attention to a newly-named group of drinkers.
Even in our increasingly gray world, an argument can be made that being a little bit of an alcoholic is like being a little bit pregnant. Either you’re an alcoholic or you aren’t, right? Healthcare professionals and addiction counselors have long believed that everyone fits into one box or the other, but new research has uncovered another group: the “almost alcoholic.”
Just what is an “almost alcoholic”? It’s someone who is not an alcoholic, although he or she may experience some of the symptoms that alcoholics typically report. Just like their addicted counterparts, the almost alcoholic drinks regularly, but may not realize that some of his or her physical or emotional concerns are connected to the alcohol consumed. This person can be any age, but the majority are middle-aged and older adults.
The reason this group skews older may be linked to genetics. As we age, our body’s ability to metabolize alcohol decreases. This means that it takes less alcohol for a 60-year-old to get drunk than it does for a 40-year-old. These physical changes can make it possible for someone who was a moderate drinker in his or her 40s to skirt the edges of alcoholism later in life, even if his or her drinking patterns haven’t changed.
So does that make these individuals alcoholics? The short answer is, “no.” They typically fall far short of the clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. That may sound surprising, but these individuals don’t meet the criteria because they don’t need an increasingly larger amount of alcohol to achieve intoxication and they don’t experience physical symptoms of withdrawal or unsuccessful efforts to control alcohol abuse. This group also rarely abandons important social, occupational or recreational activities in favor of drinking.
Nothing in this group’s behavior or social patterns change, but the way the body processes alcohol is different. That doesn’t mean they don’t still face serious health and social risks. Because alcohol remains in an older person’s bloodstream longer, it is more likely to contribute to a host of problems that range from depression, diabetes and hypertension to heart conditions, memory issues, insomnia, poor nutrition and frequent falls.
As this issue gains more widespread attention, doctors will hopefully get the message and be more vigilant in screening older patients for any signs of “almost alcoholism.”
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