Older Adults and Alcohol: You Can Get Help

Senior Help Desk healthcare blog credited to The National Institute on Aging, part of NIH   www.nia.nih.gov

Facts About Aging and Alcohol

The fact is that families, friends, and healthcare workers often overlook their concerns about older people drinking. Sometimes trouble with alcohol in older people is mistaken for other conditions related to aging, for example, a problem with balance. But, how the body handles alcohol can change with age. You may have the same drinking habits, but your body has changed.

Alcohol may act differently in older people than in younger people. Some older people can feel "high" without increasing the amount of alcohol they drink. This "high" can make them more likely to have accidents, including falls and fractures and car crashes. Also, older women are more sensitive than men to the effects of alcohol.

Drinking too much alcohol over a long time can:

  • Lead to some kinds of cancer, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage
  • Worsen some health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss and mood disorders
  • Make some medical problems hard for doctors to find and treat—for example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack.
  • Cause some older people to be forgetful and confused—these symptoms could be mistaken for signs of Alzheimer's disease.

How Alcohol Affects Safety

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol can lead to dangerous or even deadly situations. Drinking can impair a person's judgment, coordination, and reaction time. This increases the risk of falls, household accidents, and car crashes. Alcohol is a factor in 30 percent of suicides, 40 percent of crashes and burns, 50 percent of drownings and homicides, and 60 percent of falls. People who plan to drive, use machinery, or perform other activities that require attention, skill, or coordination should not drink.

In older adults, too much alcohol can lead to balance problems and falls, which can result in hip or arm fractures and other injuries. Older people have thinner bones than younger people, so their bones break more easily. Studies show that the rate of hip fractures in older adults increases with alcohol use.

Adults of all ages who drink and drive are at higher risk of traffic accidents and related problems than those who do not drink. Drinking slows reaction times and coordination and interferes with eye movement and information processing. People who drink even a moderate amount can have traffic accidents, possibly resulting in injury or death to themselves and others. Even without alcohol, the risk of crashes goes up starting at age 55. Also, older drivers tend to be more seriously hurt in crashes than younger drivers. Alcohol adds to these age-related risks.

In addition, alcohol misuse and abuse can strain relationships with family members, friends, and others. At the extreme, heavy drinking can contribute to domestic violence and child abuse or neglect. Alcohol use is often involved when people become violent, as well as when they are violently attacked. If you feel that alcohol is endangering you or someone else, call 911 or get other help right away.

Getting Help for Alcohol Problems

Are you one of those people who should stop drinking due to health problems or medicines you need to take? If you want to stop drinking, there is help.

Start by talking to a healthcare professional like your doctor. He or she may be able to give you advice about treatment. Your local health department or social services agencies may also be helpful. Here are some things you can try:

  • Ask your doctor about medicines that might help.
  • Talk to a trained counselor who knows about alcohol problems in older people.
  • Find a support group for older people with alcohol problems.
  • Choose individual, family, or group therapy, depending on what works for you.
  • Check out a 12-step program, like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), that offers support and programs for people who want to stop drinking.

Many older adults decide to quit drinking in later life. You can do it, too. There are many things you can do to cut back or stop drinking. You can:

  • Count how many ounces of alcohol you are getting in each drink.
  • Keep track of the number of drinks you have each day.
  • Decide how many days a week you want to drink. Plan some days that are free of alcohol.
  • Pace yourself when you drink. Don't have more than one alcoholic drink in an hour. In place of alcohol, drink water, juice, or soda.
  • Make sure to eat when drinking. Alcohol will enter your system more slowly if you eat some food.
  • Remove alcohol from your home.
  • Ask for support from your family and advice from your healthcare provider. Get the help you need to quit.

Take time to plan ahead. Here are some things you can do:

  • Develop interests that don't involve alcohol.
  • Avoid people, places, and times of day that may trigger your drinking.
  • Avoid drinking when you are angry or upset or if you've had a bad day.
  • Plan what you will do if you have an urge to drink.
  • Learn to say "no, thanks" when you're offered an alcoholic drink.
  • Remember to stay healthy for the fun things in life—birth of a grandchild, a long hoped for trip, or a holiday party.

No one wants to get hurt or to hurt others as the result of too much alcohol. Yet, it can happen if you drink more than you should. Be aware of how your body changes as you age. Be alert to these changes, adjust how much alcohol you can safely drink, and continue to enjoy life to the fullest.

For More Information About Help for Alcohol Problems

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism                                                                         
National Institutes of Health


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
1-877-726-4727 (toll-free)
1-800-487-4889 (TTY/toll-free)

Alcoholics Anonymous

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH):  The NIH is the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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