Alcohol & Drug Use as We Age

Our bodies and minds change as we age. Recognizing these changes and making positive adjustments is a healthy way to grow older. One significant change is how our bodies react to alcohol. Research suggests that sensitivity to alcohol’s impact on our health increases with age. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence problems with alcohol and prescription drugs among adults 60 and older is one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country. Alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects up to 17% of adults over the age of 60 per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Late onset alcoholism/addiction has many contributing factors related to changes that occur later in life. These changes can include metabolism changes, psychosocial, prior heavy alcohol use that was stopped, but continues later in life, and medical issues and medications.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism released a report “Assessing Pandemic-Driven Changes in Alcohol Consumption” in July 2021. Not surprisingly, alcohol consumption increased significantly from February to November in 2020.  For survey participants aged 65+, the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per month increased about 30%, the number of respondents who said that they drank more than the recommended daily guidelines increased almost 50%, and the number of respondents who reported binge drinking increased almost 100%.

Metabolism in the liver slows as we age which can cause alcohol and drugs to stay active in the system longer. In addition, kidney filtration slows as a natural part of aging, which can cause reduced water in the system, resulting in higher potency of alcohol and drugs. Interaction between alcohol and drugs, prescription and over the counter, may also be more serious in older adults.

Psychosocial factors that may increase alcohol/drug intake as we age include financial issues, the loss of daily contact with co-workers after retirement, caring for aging parents or loved ones and the resulting stress, death of loved ones, and inability to continue living independently.

Some medical factors associated with late onset addiction include menopause, limited mobility, insomnia, acute and chronic medical problems such as chronic pain, and behavioral health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Talking about alcohol and drug problems among older adults is not a popular subject, which makes it difficult to deal with and treat. Some reasons for this, according to NCADD, include health care providers mistaking symptoms for dementia, depression, or other problems common as we age; older adults are less likely to seek help and often hide the problem from loved ones; and many relatives and loved ones of older adults live in denial or are ashamed and choose not to address it.

Not all older people who drink have a problem. However, it is important to your overall health to assess alcohol use and how it may be affecting your health as you age. Decreasing consumption or abstaining may be necessary. If you are 60 years of age or older and enjoy a drink every now and again, discuss your drinking habits and any possible complications with your doctor, including possible drug interactions. Be honest about your alcohol and drug use (prescription and non-prescription), it may well be impacting your quality of life.

If you or a loved one have questions about drinking or drug use, you can discuss your concerns with your Primary Care Physician.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (TTY 1-800-487-4889) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.