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Patient FAQS - Alcohol Use

NIHSeniorHealth.gov, the website for older adults, makes aging-related health information easily accessible for family members and friends seeking reliable, easy-to-understand online health information. This site was developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine, both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NIHSeniorHealth features authoritative and up-to-date health information from the NIH. In addition, the American Geriatrics Society provides expert and independent review of some of the material found on this website. Health topics include general background information, open-captioned videos, quizzes, and frequently asked questions (FAQs). New topics are added to the site on a regular basis.

Below are FAQs regarding this topic.


Alcohol Use and Older Adults

1. Why are older people more sensitive to alcohol's effects than younger people?

One reason older adults are more sensitive to alcohol's effects is that they metabolize, or break down, alcohol more slowly than younger people. So, alcohol stays in their bodies longer. Also, the amount of water in the body drops with age. As a result, older adults will have a higher percentage of alcohol in their blood than younger people after drinking the same amount of alcohol.

2. Why would someone start drinking late in life?

Older adults drink for different reasons than do younger adults. Some have been drinking for many years and are physically dependent on alcohol. Others start drinking later in life because of health problems, boredom after retirement, or loneliness after the death of a spouse or close friend. This is called “late-onset drinking.” Feeling tense or depressed can also trigger drinking.

3. Sometimes I get a headache after drinking. Is it OK to take a painkiller?

No. Drinking alcohol and taking painkillers can be dangerous. For example, mixing aspirin and alcohol can increase the risk of bleeding in the stomach. Mixing acetaminophen and alcohol can increase the chances of liver damage.

Read the labels on all medications and follow the directions. Some medication labels warn people not to drink alcohol when taking the medicine. Ask a doctor, pharmacist, or other health care provider whether it’s okay to drink alcohol while taking a certain medicine.

4. What are signs of a drinking problem?

It’s not always obvious someone drinks too much. Clues that may point to a drinking problem in an older adult include:

  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Poor appetite
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Falls
  • Sleeping problems
  • Inattention to cleanliness or appearance.

Answering “yes” to at least one of the following questions is also a sign of a possible drinking problem:

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, talk with your health care provider. Also seek help if you feel you are having drinking-related problems with your health, relationships, or work. For help cutting back on your drinking, see “Thinking About a Change?” from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

5. What can I do to cut back on my drinking?

  • Write down the reasons you want to cut back on drinking.
  • Write down a goal – a limit on how many drinks you will have each day – and put it somewhere easy to see.
  • Keep track of your drinking habits for a week to see if the goal was achieved.
  • Plan alcohol-free days each week.
  • Drink water, juice, or soda instead of liquor.

You can also try the following:

  • Remove alcohol from your home.
  • Sip slowly and eat food when drinking.
  • Say “no thanks” or “I'll have a soda instead” when offered a drink.
  • If tempted to drink, think about the reasons for changing, talk to someone, or get involved with a nondrinking activity.
  • Avoid drinking when angry, upset, or having a bad day.
  • Stay away from people who drink a lot and the places where drinking happens.
  • Use the time and money spent on drinking to do something fun.

6. How do I find help for a drinking problem?

To find help in your area, ask your doctor, local health department, or a local social service agency. You may also contact the following resources.

  • The federal government's Treatment Facility Locator: Call 1-800-662-4357 or visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov
  • Alcoholics Anonymous: see your local phone book, call 1-212-870-3400, or visit www.aa.org to find a group in your area
  • Eldercare Locator: Call 1-800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov