Alcohol and Seniors

Among adults aged 65 or older, alcohol is the most used substance. One-third of older adults who suffer from alcohol abuse develop the problem later in life. Research has shown that 4% of senior adults suffer from alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol affects your mind and body differently as you age. We’ll have a look at these affects below:

clear wine glass on black surface

Increased Sensitivity to Alcohol

As you age, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol has reduced activity resulting in an increased level of alcohol in the bloodstream over a longer period of time. As well, your lean body mass declines which causes higher peak blood concentrations. These multiple mental and physical changes as we grow older affect how we respond to foreign chemicals, like alcohol, in our bodies.

Alcohol is a depressant drug that will affect your vision, hearing, impair judgment, balance and delay reaction time. For example, if you drive a car your blood alcohol level may be below the legal threshold but your reaction time will be affected making you incapable of the quick reflexes needed to avoid a car accident.This increased sensitivity also comes with higher risks for falls, and other unintentional injuries that may result from drinking. These detrimental effects can last for extended periods after you are sober.

water in clear glass bottle


As you age, your sense of thirst diminishes, your renal function declines, your body mass changes and the water and sodium in your body shifts. You also have less body water and when you drink alcohol, it makes you urinate more frequently which can lead to dangerous dehydration. If you become dehydrated you could experience the following:

  • Lethargy
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headaches
  • Inability to sweat
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion

If you have severe dehydration you may experience shriveled skin, a sunken look in the eyes, seizures, heat strokes, kidney problems and delirium. You can quickly test for dehydration by pinching the skin on the back of their hand. If it snaps back immediately, you are most likely not dehydrated. If it maintains a tented shape for an extra second or two, that’s a sign of dehydration.

Interaction With Medications

If you have prescriptions and/or take over-the-counter medications or herbal remedies, you need to be aware they may not mix well with alcohol. Some medications when taken with alcohol can be dangerous or even deadly. Because more than 90% of older adults take medications, the mixing of medications and alcohol has become one of the biggest health risks among seniors. This combination of alcohol and medications can render medications ineffective, intensify side effects and increase drug toxicity.

The following medications can dangerously interact with alcohol:

  • Aspirin – Nausea and vomiting. It can worsen ulcers, heartburn or stomach upset.
  • Acetaminophen –  Liver damage.
  • Cold and allergy medicine – Drowsiness, dizziness; increased risk for overdose.
  • Sleeping pills – Drowsiness, sleepiness, dizziness; slowed or difficulty breathing; impaired motor control; unusual behavior; memory problems.
  • Pain medication – Drowsiness, dizziness; increased risk for overdose; slowed or difficulty breathing; impaired motor control; unusual behavior; memory problems.
  • Mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications – Drowsiness, dizziness; tremors; increased risk for side effects, such as restlessness, impaired motor control; loss of appetite; stomach upset; irregular bowel movement; joint or muscle pain; depression; liver damage.
  • Herbal remedies (such as kava kava, St. John’s wort, chamomile, valerian, and lavender) – Increased drowsiness.
  • Seizure medications – Drowsiness, dizziness; increased risk of seizures (levetiracetam, phenytoin); unusual behavior and changes in mental health (such as thoughts of suicide).
  • Infection medications – Fast heartbeat, sudden changes in blood pressure; stomach pain, upset stomach, vomiting, headache, or flushing or redness of the face; liver damage (isoniazid, ketoconazole).
  • High cholesterol medications – Liver damage (all medications); increased flushing and itching (niacin), increased stomach bleeding (pravastatin + aspirin).
  • High blood pressure medications – Dizziness, fainting, drowsiness; heart problems such as changes in the heart’s regular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

person holding condom

Increased Risk of STD Infections

The cases for herpes simplex, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia have increased significantly from 2015 to 2019, affecting thousands of adults aged 65 and older. When you add alcohol your inhibitions decrease posing a greater risk in getting infected with a STD.

If you are having issues with your drinking and would like more information, this article will help you on your path.

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