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.

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What Is Alcohol?

Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is a chemical found in beverages like beer, wine, and distilled spirits such as whiskey, vodka, and rum. Through a process called fermentation, yeast converts the sugars naturally found in grains and grapes into the alcohol that is in beer and wine. Another process, called distillation, concentrates alcohol in the drink making it stronger, producing what are known as distilled spirits.

The 2012-2013 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III (NESARC III) found that 55.2 percent of adults age 65 and over drink alcohol. Most of them don’t have a drinking problem, but some of them drink above the recommended daily limits. 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

Limited research suggests that sensitivity to alcohol's health effects may increase with age. As people age, there is a decrease in the amount of water in the body, so when older adults drink, there is less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol that is consumed. This causes older adults to have a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) than younger people after consuming an equal amount of alcohol.

This means that older adults may 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.

Excessive 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 bones.

Learn more about alcohol’s effects on the body.

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 not to work properly and other medicines to become more dangerous or even deadly. Mixing alcohol and some medicines, particularly sedative-hypnotics, can cause sleepiness, confusion, or lack of coordination, which may lead to accidents and injuries. Mixing medicines also may cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and other more serious health problems.

Learn more about alcohol’s interactions with prescription drugs.

Some Medicines and Alcohol Don't Mix

Dozens of medicines interact with alcohol and those interactions 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.
  • Taking cold and allergy medicines that contain antihistamines often causes drowsiness. 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, you can still experience 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.