Anyone at any age can have a drinking problem. Uncle George always liked his liquor, so his family may not see that his drinking is getting worse as he gets older. Grandma Betty was a teetotaler all her life until she started having a drink each night to help her get to sleep after her husband died. Now, no one realizes that she needs a couple of drinks to get through each day.
These are common stories. 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.
Drinking too much alcohol over a long time can:
Many medicines—prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal remedies—can be dangerous or even deadly when mixed with alcohol. Many older people take medications every day, making this a special worry. Before taking any medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can safely drink alcohol. Here are some examples of problems caused by mixing alcohol with some medicines:
Although everyone is different, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, recommends that people over age 65 should have no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three drinks on any one day. Do you have a health problem? Are you taking certain medicines? You may need to drink less or not drink at all. Talk with your doctor.
One drink is equal to one of the following:
Some people have been heavy drinkers for many years. But, just as with Uncle George, over time the same amount of alcohol packs a more powerful punch. Other people, like Grandma Betty, develop a drinking problem later in life. Sometimes this is a result of major life changes like death of dear friends or a loved one, moving to a new home, or failing health. These kinds of changes can cause loneliness, boredom, anxiety, or depression. In fact, depression in older adults often goes along with drinking too much.
Not everyone who drinks daily has a drinking problem. And, not all problem drinkers have to drink every day. You might want to get help if you, or a loved one, hides or lies about drinking, has more than seven drinks a week or more than three drinks in one day, or gets hurt or harms others when drinking.
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 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:
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:
Take time to plan ahead. Here are some things you can do:
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.
Here are some helpful resources:
Adult Children of Alcoholics
P.O. Box 3216
Torrance, CA 90510
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Look up the AA number in your local phone book.
AA’s main office:
A.A. World Services, Inc.
P.O. Box 459
New York, NY 10163
For families of alcoholics, look up Al-Anon in your local phone book or call 1-888-425-2666 (toll-free) to find a meeting near you.
Al-Anon’s main office:
Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters
1600 Corporate Landing Parkway
Virginia Beach, VA 23454
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
5635 Fishers Lane MSC 9304
Bethesda, MD 20892-9304
National Library of Medicine
Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration
1 Choke Cherry Road
Rockville, MD 20850
For more information about health and aging, contact:
To sign up for regular email alerts about new publications and other information from the NIA, go to www.nia.nih.gov/health
Visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
NIH...Turning Discovery Into Health ®
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Updated March 2012
Publication Date: March 2012
Page Last Updated: October 17, 2013