Aging and Alcohol Abuse

Anyone at any age can have a drinking problem. Great Uncle George may have always been a heavy drinker--his family may find that as he gets older the problem gets worse. Grandma Betty may have been a teetotaler all her life, just taking a drink "to help her get to sleep" after her husband died--now she needs a couple of drinks to get through the day. These are common stories. Drinking problems in older people are often neglected by families, doctors, and the public.

Studies show that anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans over 65 are alcoholics. Many are continuing a bad habit started in earlier years, but perhaps one-third began drinking excessively as a response to facing the hardships associated with growing older. The problem of alcohol abuse and addiction can affect any person regardless of sex, race and age.

Physical Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol slows down brain activity. Because alcohol affects alertness, judgment, coordination, and reaction time--drinking increases the risk of falls and accidents. Some research has shown that it takes less alcohol to affect older people than younger ones. Over time, heavy drinking permanently damages the brain and central nervous system, as well as the liver, heart, kidneys, and stomach. Alcohol’s effects can make some medical problems hard to diagnose. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels that can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack. It also can cause forgetfulness and confusion, which can seem like Alzheimer’s disease.

Mixing Drugs

Alcohol, itself a drug, is often harmful if mixed with prescription or over-the-counter medicines. This is a special problem for people over 65, because they are often heavy users of prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs.

Mixing alcohol with other drugs such as tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain killers, and antihistamines can be very dangerous, even fatal. For example, aspirin can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines; when it is combined with alcohol, the risk of bleeding is much higher.

As people age, the body’s ability to absorb and dispose of alcohol and other drugs changes. Anyone who drinks should check with a doctor or pharmacist about possible problems with drug and alcohol interactions.

Who Becomes a Problem Drinker?

There are two types of problem drinkers--chronic and situational. Chronic abusers have been heavy drinkers for many years. Although many chronic abusers die by middle age, some live well into old age. Most older problem drinkers are in this group.

Other people may develop a drinking problem late in life, often because of "situational" factors such as retirement, lowered income, failing health, loneliness, or the death of friends or loved ones. At first, having a drink brings relief, but later it can turn into a problem.

How to Recognize a Drinking Problem

Not everyone who drinks regularly has a drinking problem. You might want to get help if you:

  • Drink to calm your nerves, forget your worries, or reduce depression
  • Lose interest in food
  • Gulp your drinks down fast
  • Lie to try to hide your drinking habits
  • Drink alone more often
  • Hurt yourself, or someone else, while drinking
  • Were drunk more than three or four times last year
  • Need more alcohol to get "high"
  • Feel irritable, resentful, or unreasonable when you are not drinking
  • Have medical, social, or financial problems caused by drinking

Getting Help

If you suspect your elder is abusing alcohol, it is wise to discuss his/her drinking behavior with a physician. He or she can help you assess whether the shadowy line that separates social drinking from alcoholism has been crossed.

The questions to ask include:

  • Have I ever felt that I should cut down on drinking?
  • Have friends or relatives told me that I drink too much?
  • Do I sometimes feel guilty about the amount I drink?
  • Do I sometimes sneak an early-morning drink to help me face the stresses of the day?

If your elder answers "yes'' to two or more of these questions, it is probably wise to seek help.

Older problem drinkers have a very good chance for recovery because once they decide to seek help, they usually stay with treatment programs. You can begin getting help by calling your family doctor or clergy member. Your local health department or social services agencies can also help.


Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a voluntary fellowship of alcoholics who help themselves and each other get and stay sober. Check the phone book for a local chapter or write the national office at: 475 Riverside Drive, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10115; or call (212) 870-3400.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides information on alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Contact:

6000 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-7003
(301) 443-3860.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. can refer you to treatment services in your area. Contact:

National headquarters
12 West 21st Street
8th Floor, New York, NY 10010
(800) NCA-CALL (800-622-2255).

The National Institute on Aging offers a variety of resources on health and aging. Contact:

NIA Information Center
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
(800) 222-2225, TTY (800) 222-4225.

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