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Older adults and alcohol: Know the risks

Two older adults laugh and talk.

June 17, 2024—Alcohol use is on the rise among adults 65 and older, recent data shows—and so are alcohol-related deaths. And alcohol use can lead to serious health problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 adults age 65 and older has at least four drinks per week. About 1 in 10 adults age 65 and older says that they binge drink, reports the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

The effects of alcohol intensify as people age. The risks may be higher too: Older adults are more likely to have chronic conditions—and take medications—that clash with alcohol use.

An unhealthy mix

Older adults process alcohol differently. After about age 50, there's less water flowing through your bloodstream. Any alcohol you drink isn't diluted as much, and the result is a higher blood alcohol level. Simply drinking more water won't increase the dilution rate: Older adults often get dehydrated, and alcohol itself dehydrates you.

That's not the only change that comes with age. The stomach and liver produce an enzyme called ADH that breaks down alcohol. But ADH production decreases with age, so alcohol stays in the system longer.

These changes mean that older adults may drink the same amount they always have—but become more intoxicated. And that can increase the odds of:

  • Falls.
  • Burns.
  • Drowning.
  • Car crashes.

Alcohol and medication

Another danger for older adults who drink is the possibility of dangerous, even deadly, interactions between alcohol and medications. Drinking while taking prescription and over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies can:

  • Make a medication less effective.
  • Increase a medication's side effects.
  • Cause damage to organs.
  • Result in increased blood alcohol concentration.

What's more, many older adults take more than one prescription drug, adding to the risk of these interactions. If you drink, it's important to be open with your doctor about your alcohol consumption. They can help you understand how your medications might affect your risk.

Other health concerns

Over time, alcohol consumption can contribute to or worsen several health problems, such as:

  • Memory problems and dementia.
  • Several types of cancer.
  • Liver damage.
  • Stroke.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Depression and anxiety.

Reach out

Alcohol poses special risks for older adults, but it can harm your health at any age. If you're concerned about how alcohol might be affecting you, let your doctor know. They can offer support and resources to help you take charge of your health—and your alcohol use.


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