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Alcohol's Effect Changes as People Age

Tolerance levels shift and increased drinking may make health problems worse

By NIH/National Institute on Aging

Based on content from the NIH/National Institute on Aging AgePage "Older Adults and Alcohol."

As people age, they may become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects.

The same amount of alcohol can have a greater effect on an older person than on someone who is younger.

Over time, someone whose drinking habits haven't changed may find that he or she has a problem.

Heavy drinking can make some health problems worse. It is important to talk to your doctor if you have problems like high blood sugar (diabetes). Heavy drinking can also cause health problems such as weak bones (osteoporosis).  

Health Problems Exacerbated by Alcohol

Older adults are more likely to have health problems that can be made worse by alcohol. Some of these health problems are:

  •     Stroke
  •     High blood pressure
  •     Memory loss
  •     Mood disorders

Talk with your doctor or other health care worker about how alcohol can affect your health.

Medicines and Alcohol Don’t Mix

  •     Taking aspirin and drinking alcohol can raise the chance of bleeding in your stomach.
  •     You can get very sleepy if you drink alcohol and take cold and allergy medicines.
  •     Some cough syrups have a high amount of alcohol in them.
  •     Drinking alcohol while taking some sleeping pills, pain pills, or anxiety or depression medicine can be very dangerous.
  •     You can hurt your liver if you drink and take a lot of painkillers that have the word “acetaminophen” on the label. Always check the warning labels.

If You Think You Have a Drinking Problem

  •     Find a support group for older adults with alcohol problems.
  •     Talk to a health care professional like your doctor. Ask about medicines that might help.
  •     Visit a trained counselor who knows about alcohol problems and how they affect older adults.
  •     Choose individual, group, or family therapy, depending on what works for you.
  •     Join a 12-step program such as AA, which is short for Alcoholics Anonymous. AA groups offer support and have programs for people who want to quit drinking.

What if Someone You Know has a Drinking Problem

1. Talk

  •     Talk about your worries when the person is sober. Try to say what you think or feel, like “I am concerned about your drinking.”
  •     Give facts. Some people find it helpful just to get information. You could say, “I want to share some things I’ve learned about older adults and alcohol.”
  •     Try to stay away from labels like “alcoholic.”
  •     Ask to go to doctor visits with your family member.

2. Offer your help

  •     Suggest things to do that don’t include drinking.
  •     Encourage counseling or attending a group meeting. Offer to drive to and from these support meetings.
  •     Give your support during treatment.

3. Take care of yourself

  •     You need support, too. Think about what you need to stay safe and healthy.
  •     Involve other family members or friends so you are not in this alone. Talk honestly about how you are feeling. Try to say what support or help you need.
  •     Try going to counseling or special meetings that offer support to families and friends of people with drinking problems.

Remember—you can’t make a person deal with a drinking problem. You can offer support and get help for yourself.

NIH/National Institute on Aging
By NIH/National Institute on Aging
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