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.
Let’s face it, alcohol has always been a key factor in social occasions in most societies since earliest time. For many of us, an event just doesn’t seem right without alcohol and every social gathering therefore includes alcohol. Many think alcohol adds to the conviviality of gatherings and helps people to relax. It can be argued most drink in moderation.
However, 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:
- Lead to some kinds of cancer, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage.
- Worsen some health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and ulcers.
- 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.
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:
- If you take aspirin and drink, your risk of stomach or intestinal bleeding is increased.
- When combined with alcohol, cold and allergy medicines (the label will say antihistamines) may make you feel very sleepy.
- Alcohol used with large doses of acetaminophen, a common painkiller, may cause liver damage.
- Some medicines, such as cough syrups and laxatives, have high alcohol content. If you drink at the same time, your alcohol level will go up.
- Alcohol used with some sleeping pills, pain pills, or anxiety/anti-depression medicine can be deadly.
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.
Get the free e-book from NIA “Older Adults and Alcohol”.
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.
Learn more at the US National Institute on Aging