Seniors and Alcohol – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Posted on April 30, 2014

Seniors and AlcoholSeniors and alcohol –

Many seniors partake of alcohol in moderation, however, due to physiological and psychological reasons, moderation can be too much for some seniors and for some it is leading to drinking problems or outright alcoholism that can complicate already complex health conditions. The relationship between seniors and alcohol is different than in the younger population and is worth a look.

As with all ages, alcohol affects men and women differently due to muscle mass and blood volume. Women also suffer more consequences with an increase in breast cancer and osteoporosis by drinking more than recommended amounts. It is recommended that women drink only one alcoholic beverage daily and men may have two.

One drink is equal to one of the following:

  • One 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer, ale, or wine cooler
  • One 8- or 9-ounce can or bottle of malt liquor
  • One 5-ounce glass of red or white wine
  • One 1.5-ounce shot glass of hard liquor (spirits) like gin, vodka,

Seniors face life stressors that can lead to the increase or onset of alcohol consumption and the symptoms are often dismissed or mistaken for age-related conditions. Not all seniors who drink regularly have a drinking problem nor do people who do have a drinking problem drink regularly. The key is awareness of your current drinking habits and to evaluate if they are having an effect on your physical, psychological or social well-being.

The Good:

The good news is that a daily drink is beneficial to otherwise healthy seniors, especially red wine.

  • Research is showing that light to moderate drinking after 65 may prevent cognitive decline and dementia by 35%-45%.
  • For postmenopausal women, moderate drinking has been linked to a reduction in the risk for osteoporosis and an improvement in bone density.
  • A daily drink has been shown to raise HDL, the good cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis.

The Bad:

Physiological Effects:

  • Less able to clear alcohol from the body, leaving excess alcohol, even at moderate amounts free to damage brain, liver, heart.
  • Lower immunity for those who those who consume too much.
  • Decreased balance and strength.
  • Chronic alcohol dependence increases the risk for depression, anxiety disorders, heart disease, liver disease and cancer.

Psychological Effects:

  • Isolation and loneliness is eased with the use of alcohol, making the person less motivated to seek out social situations, leading to more isolation.
  • If a person had a social network and is consistently seen drinking too much, friends withdraw, leading to isolation and more drinking.
  • Depression occurs in over 50% of people over 65. Alcohol is a depressant. It can increase the feelings of depression in those already suffering from depression.


Some medications can increase the effects of alcohol or be toxic in combination. Here are some examples:

  • 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.


  • Many seniors do not eat enough as sense of taste wanes with age. When drinking, less food in the stomach increases the rate of alcohol absorption into the blood stream
  • Dehydration is a common issue in seniors – dehydration causes lower blood volume which can increase the total blood alcohol level per drink.
  • Alcohol is a strong diuretic increasing the risk of dehydration.
  • Heavy drinking can take the place of adequate food consumption providing empty calories with no nutritional value.

The Ugly

Among persons over 60, up to 10% in community-based living fulfill the criteria for alcohol abuse. For those admitted to hospitals, the rate of alcoholism is 18%-20%, 38% in psychiatric institutions and 40% in nursing homes. The number of seniors who drink heavily is increasing and women are catching up to men.

It has been shown that many seniors who drink beyond recommended amounts over long periods of time:

  • Suffer more falls and injuries.
  • Exhibit symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s such as being forgetful or confused – some of which can be corrected by cutting down or abstention. However, after prolonged use some damage cannot be reversed.
  • Make diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases or conditions more difficult for physicians.
  • Can worsen conditions like osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and ulcers.
  • 70%-80% of hospitalized seniors have some problem with alcohol.
  • In a study of suicides in persons over 65 years of age, alcohol abuse was identified in 35% of men and in 18% of women. This is 18 times greater than seen in a random population control group.
  • Alcohol reacts negatively with more than 150 medications.

The Bottom Line

Otherwise healthy seniors should feel free to enjoy their favorite alcoholic beverage but the definition of moderation can change later in life. If you are currently suffering from a chronic condition, you may not benefit from light to moderate drinking. Continue to monitor and be aware of alcohol’s effects on you and adjust accordingly.

  • Be kinder to your body. If you are consuming more than 7 drinks in a week or more than 3 drinks a day, consider cutting down or quitting altogether.
  • Always check with your physician to make sure that there are no adverse reactions that may occur with any over-the-counter, herbal or prescription medications.
  • If you cannot cut down, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As with all stages of life, alcohol abuse and dependence can sneak up on a person for various reasons. Your physician or local social services agency can help direct you to the resources that you need to get your life back on track.
  • If you are witnessing an alcohol problem with a loved one, remember to approach them with love, support and compassion in an effort to help them to help themselves.