Drinking and the Elderly: Too Long of a Cocktail Hour?


While older adults don’t drink as much alcohol as younger people, they can still have trouble with its effects. Because the elderly are prone to acquiring chronic diseases or other health problems and are more likely to use medications, use of alcohol can cause problems that were not evident at a younger age.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2008 found that about 40 percent of adults age 65 and older drink alcohol. While most elderly adults don’t have a drinking problem, some of them drink too much.

Why the Elderly React Differently to Alcohol

Elderly adults may become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects because they metabolize alcohol more slowly than younger adults. Consequently, alcohol stays in their bodies longer. This, combined with the fact that the amount of water in the body goes down with age, results in older adults having a higher percentage of alcohol in their blood than younger adults after drinking the same amount of alcohol. Aging also lowers the body’s tolerance for alcohol so some of the effects of alcohol, such a slurred speech and lack of coordination, are more evident as one ages.¬† An older person can develop problems with alcohol even though his or her drinking habits have not changed.

Drinking too much alcohol can cause health problems. Heavy drinking over time can damage the liver, the heart, and the brain. It can increase the risk of developing certain cancers, damage muscles and cause immune system disorders. It can also increase the chances of getting osteoporosis, a common disease in older adults, especially women. Osteoporosis makes bones weaker and more likely to break.

Drinking too much alcohol can make some health conditions worse. These conditions include diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, and memory problems. They also include mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Adults with major depression are more likely than adults without major depression to have alcohol problems.

Because so many older adults consume prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and herbal remedies they are more likely to notice the effects of combining alcohol and medications or herbal supplements.  Drinking alcohol can cause certain medicines to not work properly and other medicines to become more dangerous or even deadly. Mixing alcohol and some medicines can cause sleepiness, confusion, or lack of coordination, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and other health problems.

Medicines that Interact With Alcohol

Dozens of medicines interact with alcohol, with possible negative effects. Here are some examples.

  • Taking aspirin or arthritis medications and drinking alcohol can increase the risk of bleeding in the stomach.
  • Taking the painkiller acetaminophen in large doses and drinking alcohol can increase the chances of liver damage.
  • Taking cold and allergy medicines that contain antihistamines often make people sleepy. Drinking alcohol can make this drowsiness worse and impair coordination.
  • Drinking alcohol and taking some medicines that aid sleep, reduce pain, or relieve anxiety or depression can cause sleepiness and poor coordination.
  • Drinking alcohol and taking medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, gout, and heart failure can make those conditions worse.

The elderly and/or their caregiver should carefully examine the medications they are taking and discuss possible interactions with alcohol with their pharmacist or physician.

The following resources are also valuable in learning more about alcohol and the elderly.

  • The federal government’s Treatment Facility Locator at 1-800-662-4357 or www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov
  • Alcoholics Anonymous — see your local phone book, call 1-212-870-3400, or visit www.aa.org to find a group in your area
  • Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 or www.eldercare.gov

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