Alcohol and older people
As we get older, our bodies are less able to break down alcohol and we become more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol on our health and wellbeing.
Alcohol can start to cause problems as we get older, even if our drinking habits stay the same as they were when we were younger.
How much do older people drink?
Research shows that older people (over 55s) are as likely as many younger people to drink at harmful levels. Older people also tend to drink more frequently than younger people. This may be wine or a few cans at home in the evening, or regularly having a few at the local pub.
I’ve always drunk like this – it hasn’t done me any harm
Over time, drinking above low-risk levels takes its toll. As you get older, you are more likely to start to feel the negative effects, particularly on your health, even if you have escaped them so far.
You may also have health problems that you don’t realise are being caused or made worse by alcohol, like high blood pressure, depression or trouble sleeping.
Other problems like liver damage can happen without you noticing, as the symptoms often don’t appear until a lot of damage is done.
Your body is less able to cope with alcohol as you get older
Our bodies tend to work less efficiently as we get older, including our livers. This means we can’t process alcohol as well, so the same amount of alcohol can have a more damaging effect on your body as you get older. Alcohol also depresses the brain function more in older people, increasing problems with coordination, memory and judgement.
Read more: Alcohol and the Older Adult Brain (size 245 KB) - An article by Dr Helen McMonagle.
I’m fine - I can handle my drink
You may feel that alcohol has less effect on you as you get older – you may not feel its effects or get drunk the way you used to. This tolerance is not a good thing – it can mean you drink more to get the same effect as before, causing more harm to your body and mind. It can also be a warning sign that you are becoming dependent on alcohol.
What are some of the problems that alcohol can cause?
Alcohol can damage your health
Alcohol can cause many health problems like heart disease, cancer, strokes, liver problems and brain damage. Too much alcohol can also worsen existing health conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis. For more about alcohol’s effects on health, see our health section.
Alcohol can be bad for our mood and mental health
Sometimes we drink alcohol to relieve feelings of sadness, loneliness, stress or worry. Getting older can mean we face new challenges.
While alcohol may make you feel better for a little while, alcohol is not a healthy way to cope. Alcohol is a depressant. The feelings of anxiety and depression will come back again, often worse than before.
Alcohol can worsen existing mental health difficulties, making them more difficult to manage and more difficult for you to recover.
Alcohol can make you vulnerable
Alcohol can affect your judgement and memory, which can make you more vulnerable to accidents and injuries – things like falling, road traffic accidents and forgetting to turn off electrical appliances or lock doors. You are also more at risk of being exploited or abused by someone else if your judgment is affected by alcohol.
Alcohol and medications
Alcohol can interfere with medications you are taking. It can stop medicines working or increase their effects – for example, if you are taking a tranquilliser, alcohol can make the sedative effect much stronger. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about medicines you are taking, to make sure it is safe to drink alcohol with them.
I’m too old to change my ways now
It’s never too late to change. Older people benefit from changing their drinking habits as much as younger people. Because alcohol affects older people more, it’s good to look at what you’re drinking as you get older and make sure you stay below the low-risk limits.
Benefits of changing your drinking
Cutting down and avoiding heavy drinking days can help to stop problems developing or getting worse.
Staying within or below the low-risk weekly guidelines can help you to:
- Avoid accidents and injuries
- Keep mentally active and alert
- Be as healthy as possible
- Sleep better
- Save money
- Lose weight
- Avoid depression and anxiety
- Stay independent
- Find new social activities and interests
Changing your drinking habits doesn’t mean giving up your life. Trying some new alcohol-free activities can open up new interests and friendships. If you like to socialise in the pub or a glass or wine with friends, try alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, or choose a no-alcohol wine or beer.
If you want more tips on how to cut down or ideas for drink-free activities, see our section Drink less do more.
Information for people caring for an older person
If you are caring for an older person, we have information about spotting and reducing alcohol related problems.