Alcohol and Older Adults

Many older adults enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a beer while watching the game on TV. Having a drink now and then is fine—as long as you don’t overdo it. When you’re older, your body and mind can react differently to alcohol than they used to.

Alcohol and aging

People become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects as they age, according to the National Institute on Aging. After age 65, your lean body mass and water content decrease. In addition, your metabolism slows down. When you drink alcohol, these factors combine to make alcohol stay in your system longer, so the amount of alcohol in your blood is higher than it was when you were younger and drank the same amount. So you feel the effects faster.

Older adults also are more likely to have hearing and vision problems and slower reaction times. This puts them at higher risk for falls, fractures, and automobile accidents tied to drinking.

Some medical conditions in people older than age 65, and the medications used to treat them, can worsen with alcohol's effects. These include diabetes, high blood pressure, and ulcers. Heavy alcohol use can lead to other health problems:

  • Some cancers

  • Chronic pancreatitis

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Heart failure

  • High cholesterol

  • Osteoporosis

  • Stroke

Alcohol is also linked to mental health problems, such as depression and suicide in older adults.

Drug interactions

An important reason to stay away from alcohol may be in your medicine cabinet. Medications taken by older adults are more likely to have serious interactions with alcohol and drugs, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Many prescribed and over-the-counter medications and herbal products can interact negatively with alcohol. Many older adults take at least two medications a day. Medications and alcohol can interact even if they’re not taken at the same time. That's because the drug may still be in your blood when you have a drink.

What’s a safe amount?

The NIAAA recommends that people older than age 65 who are healthy have no more than seven drinks a week, an average of one standard drink each day and no more than three drinks on any one day. One drink is 12 ounces of beer, ale, or wine cooler; eight ounces of malt liquor; five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor.

How to cut down

If you want to limit your drinking or your health care provider suggests it, try these steps from the National Institutes of Health:

1. Write down your reasons for cutting back. These might include wanting to improve your health or sleep better. Other reasons may be to maintain your independence or preserve family relations.

2. Track your drinking habits for at least one week. Write down when and how much you drink every day.

3. Set a drinking goal. You may decide to cut down to one drink a day or to not drink at all. Write your goal on a piece of paper and put it where you will see it every day.