The older adult population is increasing rapidly. Alcohol use among older adults is also increasing. As we focus on the quality of life for this growing population, it’s important to take into account how alcohol affects their overall health.
While older adulthood is a special time of life, it also a time of life in which older individuals must pay special attention to their health. With aging come issues such as increased inflammation and pain, elevated risks of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions, as well as cognitive decline and sleep problems. Drinking alcohol can compound these health issues. In addition, older adults are more sensitive to the sedative (sleep-inducing) effects of alcohol and its effects on reaction time, balance, coordination, attention, and driving skills. These effects put older adults at higher risk for accidents and unintentional injuries that may result from drinking.
Due to differences in physiology and metabolism, older adults are more likely to have higher blood alcohol concentrations compared to their younger counterparts after consuming the same amount of alcohol. This means that older adults could develop alcohol-related problems (e.g., injuries, falls, liver damage) at lower drinking levels. Research also suggests that older women may be more susceptible than older men to the adverse effects of alcohol.
Many older adults also take medications that could interact with alcohol. These interactions could cause the medications to not work properly or make them dangerous or even deadly. For example, medications used to treat anxiety, pain, or sleep problems have sedating effects that could further increase the risk of falls, injuries, and overdoses, as well as memory impairments, when combined with alcohol.
For older adults who choose to drink, it’s important to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, which provide advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease. The guidelines recommend that adults who choose to drink limit alcohol consumption to 1 drink or less for women and 2 drinks or less for men—on any single day, not on average. Even still, there is no perfectly safe level of alcohol consumption, as current research points to health risks including cancer and cardiovascular risks at low levels of alcohol consumption, regardless of the type of beverage. Certain older adults should avoid alcohol completely, including those who take medications that interact with alcohol, have a medical condition that can be worsened by alcohol, are recovering from alcohol use disorder or are unable to control the amount they drink, or plan to drive or operate machinery, or participate in activities that require skill, coordination, and alertness.
If you are an older adult who consumes alcohol, it is important to talk to your doctor to determine if you may be taking medications that could interact with alcohol or have a health condition that could be made worse by consuming alcohol.
Here are some resources to help you examine your drinking patterns and, if needed, find help for an alcohol-related problem.
- If you want to examine your drinking patterns, visit NIAAA’s website Rethinking Drinking. It also provides tips to help you cut back or stop drinking.
- If you want to know more about alcohol treatment, visit the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator to learn about evidence-based alcohol treatment options and how to find treatment providers near you.
- Your primary care and mental health providers can discuss your drinking patterns with you and, if needed, help you plan a safe recovery or refer you to further treatment for alcohol problems. Recently, NIAAA developed the Healthcare Professional’s Core Resource on Alcohol to help primary care and other health providers understand the many ways that alcohol can impact a patient’s health and address alcohol-related concerns in their patients.
You can find more information about how alcohol use interacts with aging in a special issue published online in the journal Alcohol.
George F. Koob, Ph.D.
Need Help for an Alcohol Problem?
If you’re having an emergency, call 911. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call 911, go to the nearest emergency room or call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to help you through this difficult time.
The NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator can help you recognize and find high quality treatment for alcohol use disorder. If you drink excessively, seek medical help to plan a safe recovery as sudden abstinence can be life threatening. NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking can help you assess your drinking habits and provides information to help you cut back or stop drinking.