When allowed to continue unchecked, seniors are as much at risk for the development of an alcohol use disorder and all its potential consequences as anyone else. If there are underlying medical or mental health issues at play, the damage could be significant, even deadly.
Alcohol Use in Seniors on the Rise
Alcohol use among seniors is surging in the U.S. Older individuals experience the negative effects of alcohol more acutely. As a result, many healthcare professionals, researchers, and policymakers are working to raise awareness among seniors, so seniors can get help with alcohol abuse as early as possible.
But why are more seniors drinking heavily as they age? There are several factors contributing to this trend in 2023, including these:[1,3-5]
Increasing Population of Seniors
With advancements in healthcare and longer life expectancies, the senior population is growing. This demographic shift includes individuals who started drinking earlier in life and continued drinking as they aged.
A Shift in Social Norms
The cultural landscape surrounding alcohol has transformed, with older adults embracing its use more openly. Seniors now partake in wine tastings, cocktail gatherings, and happy hours, altering the perception of alcohol as a normal part of their social lives.
Retirement & Lifestyle Changes
Retirement brings about significant lifestyle changes. An absence of work responsibilities and social networks can leave seniors grappling with boredom, loneliness, or a lack of purpose. In response, some turn to alcohol to fill the void or cope with the emotional challenges of this new phase.
As seniors reach retirement age, financial stability, and disposable income often become more readily available. With improved financial means, older adults may indulge in alcohol more frequently or in larger quantities.
A Hidden Issue
Alcohol-related problems among older adults often go unnoticed or undiagnosed. Healthcare professionals may overlook screening for alcohol use disorders in this age group, assuming the issue is less prevalent. Even family members and caregivers may dismiss signs of alcohol misuse, attributing symptoms solely to the aging process.
Statistics on Seniors & Alcohol Use
- About 20% of seniors between the ages of 60 and 64 engage in binge drinking. For those age 65 and older, about 11% binge drink.
- Between 2% and 4% of senior U.S. adults are estimated to have alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- More than 1 million senior adults (age 65 and older) had a substance use disorder (SUD) in 2014, including 978,000 who had AUD.
- Between 2001 and 2013, the rate of alcohol use disorder among individuals ages 65 and older increased by 107%.
- When older adults were asked why they drank alcohol, the most common reasons reported were: enjoying the taste (50%), socializing (49%), relaxation (38%), and it being part of their routine (13%). Some individuals also mentioned drinking to cope with stress (10%), improve mood (9%), combat boredom (8%), or alleviate pain (5%).
- Among adults ages 50 to 80 who consumed alcohol in 2020, approximately 10% combined it with other substances, such as marijuana, prescription tranquilizers, prescription sleeping pills, prescription pain pills, or illicit drugs.
Alcohol Use & Aging
How the body processes alcohol shifts with age. Some of how the aging process changes how alcohol impacts the brain and body include the following:[1,2,9]
As we age, our metabolism slows down, altering the processing of alcohol.  This can result in experiencing higher blood alcohol concentrations and a prolonged state of impairment when drinking the same amount that was previously considered low.
In addition to the slower metabolism, aging causes an increased sensitivity to alcohol’s effects. A single drink that once had minimal impact on the person’s perception and function can now cause a huge shift.
Many medications react poorly with alcohol, often increasing alcohol’s undesirable side effects, such as respiratory depression. Since older adults are likely to be taking multiple medications, it’s imperative to ensure they don’t interact poorly with alcohol.
Alcohol’s effect on cognitive function increases with age. Memory issues and decision-making abilities associated with alcohol can be more significant in older people.
Risks of Drinking for Seniors
Some of the potential dangers and risks that come with alcohol use during senior years include the following:[1,2,5,9-11]
Increased Risk of Falling
Alcohol’s ability to impair balance and coordination puts seniors at a higher risk of falls and resulting injuries. With age-related balance challenges already in play, the combination is a true cause for concern.
Worsening of Chronic Conditions
Excessive alcohol use can worsen chronic diseases. Seniors who are already navigating the challenges of aging bodies will face an increased vulnerability to alcohol-related health risks, such as liver disease, cardiovascular issues, and certain types of cancer.
Negative Effects on Immunity
Aging naturally weakens the immune system, leaving seniors more susceptible to illnesses. Alcohol abuse can further compromise immune function, leaving seniors more vulnerable to infections and health complications.
Social & Emotional Consequences
Excessive alcohol use can strain relationships, contribute to social isolation, and magnify emotional distress among everyone, including older adults. A drink that was meant to provide solace can end up deepening feelings of loneliness and exacerbating underlying emotional struggles.
Increased Risks of Car Accidents
Alcohol and driving form a dangerous mix at any age, but seniors who may already be struggling with decreased motor function, slowed response time, and diminishing eyesight will find those issues exacerbated by alcohol use.
Did the Pandemic Increase Alcohol Use Among Seniors?
The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to increased substance abuse across all age groups, and this was true for alcohol use among seniors as well.[12-15] Many people drank as a way to cope with heightened stress and anxiety during the pandemic as well as loneliness due to isolation from friends and family.
Older adults are already more likely to be socially isolated and lonely, and the pandemic worsened these issues. Many seniors use alcohol as a way to manage stress and other intense emotions. Others simply used it as a way to deal with boredom.
While not all seniors increased their drinking habits during the pandemic, many found themselves on the other side with substantial alcohol misuse issues.
Signs That a Senior Is Abusing Alcohol
Identifying alcohol abuse in elderly individuals requires careful observation, as it may manifest differently than in younger adults. It can sometimes look like other chronic disorders or be dismissed as a normal sign of aging.
Keep an eye out for the following signs that can indicate that an older person may be struggling with alcohol abuse:[16-18]
Mood & Behavior Shifts
Alcohol abuse can cast a shadow over mood and behavior. Watch for increased irritability, bouts of depression or anxiety, and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.
Physical Health Issues
Prolonged alcohol use takes a toll on physical well-being. Look for changes in appetite, unexplained weight loss, lethargy, and noticeable declines in coordination or speech. While it’s easy to dismiss these as signs of aging, consider the overall picture and how these have occurred in conjunction with increased drinking patterns.
Alcohol abuse can lead to the neglect of important obligations like missed appointments, medication mismanagement, and financial irresponsibility caused by forgetting to pay bills or spending too much on alcohol.
Those dealing with alcohol abuse often abandon social activities and gravitate toward others who share their drinking habits. Some seniors may prefer to drink alone to escape judgment from loved ones.
With continued alcohol use, tolerance increases, requiring larger quantities to achieve the desired effects. Eventually, physical dependence and AUD will set in, so the person will need to drink to escape uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
How Can Seniors Get Treatment for Alcohol Abuse?
AUD in seniors is treated with a combination of medical care, medication management, addiction therapy, and support groups. Comprehensive, personalized care offers the best chances of long-term recovery, and this is available in addiction treatment programs that have experience treating seniors.
Seniors who have been drinking for a long time should never attempt to stop drinking on their own. This could result in life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.[20-22] Instead, medical supervision and support, and often prescribed medications, are needed to safely withdraw from alcohol.
Since AUD is underdiagnosed in seniors, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from an experienced addiction treatment professional. At Boca Recovery Center, our experts can assess you or your loved one for AUD and craft the best treatment program for your situation.
We don’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. We customize care to your needs, and we offer evidence-based care for seniors. Contact us today to learn more.
- Rising alcohol use among older adults. Sugarman D, MD. Harvard Health. Published September 24, 2021. Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Age, alcohol metabolism, and liver disease. Meier P, Seitz HK. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2008;11(1):21-26.
- Older people are projected to outnumber children. The United States Census Bureau. Published December 3, 2018. Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Facts about aging and alcohol. National Institute on Aging. Published 2022. Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Alcohol’s effects on health: Older adults. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Characteristics of older at-risk drinkers who drive after drinking and those who do not drive after drinking. Sanna MB, Tuqan AT, Goldsmith JS, et al. Traffic Injury Prevention. 2014;16(2):104-108.
- A day in the life of older adults: Substance use facts. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published 2017. Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Alcohol use among older adults. National Poll on Healthy Aging, Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation - University of Michigan. Published December 27, 2022. Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Alcohol and medication interactions. Weathermon R, Crabb DW. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 1999;23(1):40-54.
- Alcoholic liver disease: Pathogenesis and current manageme Osna NA, Donohue TM, Kharbanda KK. nt. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2017;38(2):147-161.
- The more you drink, the harder you fall: A systematic review and meta-analysis of how acute alcohol consumption and injury or collision risk increase together. Taylor B, Irving HM, Kanteres F, et al. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2010;110(1-2):108-116.
- Poll finds risky drinking patterns in older adults during pandemic. Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation - University of Michigan. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Drinking among older adults split during pandemic. Levine H. AARP. Published June 8, 2021. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Addressing problems with alcohol and other substances among older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Satre DD, Hirschtritt ME, Silverberg MJ, Sterling SA.The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Published April 2020.
- Harvard specialists sift damage of pandemic-era drinking. Harvard Gazette. Powell A. Published June 14, 2022. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug misuse or abuse. Guilford College. Published March 29, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Alcohol use disorders in elderly people – redefining an age old problem in old age. O’Connell H. BMJ. 2003;327(7416):664-667.
- Evaluation and management of alcohol use disorder among older adults. Joshi P, Duong KT, Trevisan LA, Wilkins KM. Current Geriatrics Reports. 2021;10(3).
- Managing alcohol withdrawal in the elderly. Kraemer KL, Conigliaro J, Saitz R. Drugs & Aging. 1999;14(6):409-425.
- Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review. Bharadwaj B, Kattimani S. Industrial Psychiatry Journal. 2013;22(2):100.
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: Mechanisms, manifestations, and management. Jesse S, Bråthen G, Ferrara M, et al.Acta Neurologica Scandinavica. 2016;135(1):4-16.
- Alcohol withdrawal. Newman RK, Stobart MA, Gomez AE. StatPearls. Published 2019. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: Benzodiazepines and beyond. Sachdeva A, Choudhary M, Chandra M. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 2015;9(9).
- Recovery from alcohol use disorder among older adults: A scoping review. Kermel-Schiffman I, Afuta M, Zur A, Gavriel-Fried B. Journal of Applied Gerontology. Published January 7, 2023. Accessed October 19, 2023.