Alcohol Use and Older Adults

Alcohol and Aging

Adults of any age can have problems with alcohol. In general, older adults don't drink as much as younger people, but they can still have trouble with drinking. As people get older, their bodies change. They can develop health problems or chronic diseases. They may take more medications than they used to. All of these changes can make alcohol use a problem for older adults.

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol is a chemical found in beverages like beer, wine, and "hard" liquor such as whiskey, vodka, and rum. In a process called fermentation, yeast converts the sugars naturally found in grains and grapes into the alcohol present in beer and wine. Another process, distillation, separates alcohol from the other substances in the drink and makes it stronger. That's the kind of alcohol found in hard liquor. The chemical name for alcohol is ethanol.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2010 found that nearly 40 percent of adults age 65 and older drink alcohol. Most of them don't have a drinking problem, but some of them drink too much. Sometimes people don't know they have a drinking problem. Men are more likely than women to have problems with alcohol.

Older Adults are Sensitive to Alcohol's Effects

As people age, they may become more sensitive to alcohol's effects. One reason is that older people metabolize, or break down, alcohol more slowly than younger people. So, alcohol stays in their bodies longer. Also, the amount of water in the body goes down with age. As a result, older adults have a higher percentage of alcohol in their blood than younger people after drinking the same amount of alcohol.

Aging lowers the body's tolerance for alcohol. This means that older adults can experience the effects of alcohol, such as slurred speech and lack of coordination, more readily than when they were younger. An older person can develop problems with alcohol even though his or her drinking habits have not changed.

Drinking Can Cause or Worsen Health Problems

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 and immune system disorders as well as damage muscles and bone.

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. Other health issues include mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Adults with major depression are more likely than adults without major depression to have alcohol problems.

Alcohol and Medicines

Many older adults take medicines, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter (non-prescription) drugs, and herbal remedies. 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, which may lead to accidents and injuries. It also may cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and other more serious health problems.

Some Medicines and Alcohol Don't Mix

Dozens of medicines interact with alcohol and can be harmful. 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 and drinking alcohol can increase the chances of liver damage.
  • Cold and allergy medicines that contain antihistamines often makes 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 a range of problems, including sleepiness and poor coordination as well as difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat and memory problems.
  • Drinking alcohol and taking medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, gout, and heart failure can make those conditions worse.

Medications stay in the body for at least several hours. So, there can still be a problem if you drink alcohol hours after taking a pill. Read the labels on all medications and follow the directions. Some medication labels warn people not to drink alcohol when taking the medicine. Ask a doctor, pharmacist, or other health care provider whether it's okay to drink alcohol while taking a certain medicine.