How Does Alcohol Affect Seniors?

Alcohol in moderation may have potential health benefits but what about imbibing more? Find out how seniors can sip safely here!

Should seniors drink alcohol? It sounds like a simple question, but the answer may be more complex than the basic recommendation of “drink alcohol in moderation.” The combination of alcohol and seniors can quickly turn sour if one isn’t aware of the increased risks older adults face. 

Read on for answers to all your questions, such as “how does alcohol affect seniors?”

How Does Alcohol Affect Seniors?

Did you know the effects of alcohol are often mistaken for symptoms of age-related conditions? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol-related deaths among older Americans have been on the rise. 

The body handles alcohol differently with age, putting older people at higher risk for alcohol-related accidents. Here are five ways alcohol affects aging adults, including harmful side effects to be aware of. 

Impairs Balance

Issues with balance can naturally arise with age. Alcohol can further complicate matters by causing dizziness. Drinking can affect the way the inner ear works, and the inner ear is key when it comes to balance. Alcohol can increase the incidence of fatal falls in the elderly. 

Can Cause Serious Accidents 

Beyond falls and fractures due to impaired balance, alcohol consumption can also lead to other serious situations. Alcohol, even in small amounts, can affect the following: 

  • Alertness
  • Coordination 
  • Decision-making and judgment
  • Reaction time 
  • Senses (i.e. vision, hearing)
  • Skill level 

Armed with that knowledge, it’s easy to see how alcohol can increase the likelihood of accidents. For seniors, cases of car crashes, burns, and drownings increase when alcohol is involved. 

Interacts With Medications

Adults aged 65 and older often manage multiple health conditions with several different types of medications (polypharmacy). Even without the addition of alcohol, higher medication use can cause confusion and even memory problems. 

Just a small amount of alcohol added to the mix can worsen health status and lead to dangerous medication interactions. For example, combining sleeping pills, pain pills, or antidepressants with alcohol can quickly turn deadly. 

Treatment options may be available that don’t require you to cut alcohol out of your diet. However, learning to moderate or limit alcohol intake with age is a useful skill that serves your overall health. 

Substance Use and Abuse

Seniors who drink daily don’t automatically have an alcohol use disorder. However, a dependence on alcohol to get through the day can signal alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Alcohol problems can add up over time, ultimately contributing to serious health conditions like cancer, liver disease, and even brain damage.  

The National Institute of Aging put it perfectly by saying “heavy drinking, even occasionally, can have harmful effects.” Seniors in particular are susceptible to the effects of drinking since the body’s tolerance for alcohol can decrease with age. In other words, older adults can feel intoxicated more quickly than they did in their younger years. 

Complicates Other Conditions 

With age, alcohol can cause existing health problems to worsen to a dangerous level. This is especially true for seniors taking medication to help manage diseases or disorders. Alcohol can especially exacerbate the following conditions: 

  • Cancer 
  • Diabetes 
  • Digestive disorders (i.e. stomach ulcers)
  • Heart disease or congestive heart failure
  • High blood pressure 
  • Immune disorders 
  • Liver disease or problems 
  • Memory disorders (i.e. dementia)
  • Mood disorders (i.e. anxiety, depression)
  • Osteoporosis 
  • Stroke 

Long-term, alcohol can affect cognitive function (which can impact all areas of life). 

How Seniors Can Drink Alcohol Safely

Luckily, there are many tactics seniors can employ to ensure safe drinking practices. Pick from the following list of tips to try today. 

Know What “One Drink” Means

Unless you’re measuring by the ounce as you go, it’s easy to overlook how much you’re actually drinking. Plus, “one drink” can differ depending on the kind of liquor. 

Here are the following standard equivalents of “one drink”, depending on your alcohol of choice and alcohol by volume (ABV): 

  • Ales, Beers, and Hard Seltzers (5% ABV) — 1 can or bottle (12 ounces) 
  • Malt Liquor (7% ABV) — 1 can or bottle (8 ounces) 
  • Wine, i.e. red, white (12% ABV) — 1 glass (5-ounce)
  • Distilled Spirits, i.e. whiskey, vodka (40% ABV, a.k.a. 80 proof) — 1.5-ounce shot glass

Whether intentional or accidental, binge drinking in seniors has increased in recent years. Knowing the correct amounts to limit drinking to moderation can help you make smart choices for yourself and your health. 

As a reference, excessive drinking is considered 4-5 drinks during a single occasion or 8-15 drinks per week (depending on your gender). Generally, “drinking in moderation” means limiting your intake to 1 drink a day (for women) or 2 drinks a day (for men). Alternatively, you can choose not to drink at all if that better serves your healthy lifestyle. 

Make Mocktails 

Mocktails are like cocktails, just without alcohol. They imitate your favorite drinks without raising blood alcohol levels. 

While you’ll still have to be wary of added sugars, selecting mocktails from the menu may be the smartest choice you can make. Many modern bars are even embracing mocktail options to make their environment more friendly for all. 

Appoint A Designated Driver

If you continue to drink alcohol as you age, it’s always a good idea to appoint a designated driver. Between medications, changes in tolerance, and other unforeseen factors, the safest way to stay out of trouble is to not get behind the wheel if you’re a drinking senior. The effects of alcohol can impact not only you, but others as well if you choose to drink and drive. 

Limit Yourself to Special Occasions 

An easy way to moderate intake is to limit drinking to special occasions. For example, you can allow yourself a sip of champagne on New Year’s Eve or a glass of wine at a wedding. 

Intense restriction can often encourage an unhealthy mindset around food and beverage consumption. Instead of intensely obsessing over your intake, remind yourself there’s a special time and place for alcohol. Saving alcohol for special occasions can give you something to look forward to without fixating on your intake. 

Ask About Medication & Look At the Labels

Before starting a new medication (or even taking regular ones), it is important to double-check the label. Prescription medications often have important interactions listed on the side, generally indicated with icons that stick out. If you have any questions or concerns, your pharmacist can help answer questions and make your medical regimen clearer. 

Keep in mind, common antihistamines ( like cold or allergy medicines) can make you drowsy, especially combined with alcohol. Additionally, alcohol and large doses of the common painkiller acetaminophen can contribute to liver damage in the long run. Again, you can always call your pharmacy to ask questions about common or prescription medication interactions. 

Recognize Your Risk Factors & Triggers

Your relationship with alcohol may be okay day-to-day. However, your propensity for alcohol may increase as you go through specific experiences. 

For example, common drinking triggers for seniors can include:  

  • Big life changes (i.e. retirement)
  • Death of a spouse or loved one 
  • Feelings of boredom, loneliness, anxiety, or depression
  • Grieving loss of health or independence 
  • Relocating to a new home 

Like young people, seniors can also feel pressure to drink out of habit, due to social expectations, or as a form of self-medication. Knowing your risk factors and what environments trigger you can help you recognize when you’re using alcohol unintentionally. Working with a therapist or addiction specialist can help you find alternative behaviors and healthier coping strategies. 

Set Up A Support System

It can be easy for friends or family to overlook a serious drinking problem. Whether it’s a formal sobriety sponsor or just an accountability partner, having someone you can count on to help you stay healthy is important. 

Remember, your clinician can be a key player in providing the support you need. A recent study found that fewer than half of adults aged 65 and older discussed alcohol intake with their healthcare providers. Your healthcare team can be crucial in tracking your health habits and can warn you about red flags involving alcohol. 

In Summary on Alcohol and Seniors

While seniors can drink safely, it’s important to consider certain risks that come with mixing alcohol and aging. Having a healthcare team and a supportive group of friends and family can help you to identify tricky situations exacerbated by alcohol. In particular, seniors should know that alcohol can increase the risk of accidents like falls, and can have deadly interactions with medicines. 

Related Questions:

Should seniors drink alcohol? 

While seniors are allowed to drink alcohol, certain risks exist for this age group. Tolerance for alcohol changes with age, making it tricky to estimate the appropriate amount to drink. Plus, mixing alcohol with medication can have dangerous results. Alcohol-related accidents can also cause harm to seniors and others around them. 

How much alcohol is safe for seniors?

In general, seniors should limit alcohol to 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men. If you take medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist before consuming any alcohol. Even a small amount can cause accidents depending on what the alcohol is mixing within your body. 


Alcohol Use and Your Health. CDC. Published April 2022. 

Canham SL, Humphries J, Kupferschmidt AL, Lonsdale E. Updated Understanding of the Experiences and Perceptions of Alcohol Use in Later Life. Can J Aging. 2021;40(3):424-435. 

Charlesworth CJ, Smit E, Lee DSH, Alramadhan F, Odden MC. Polypharmacy Among Adults Aged 65 Years and Older in the United States: 1988-2010. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2015;70(8):989-995. 

The Effect of Alcohol On Older People. American Addiction Centers. Published November 2022. 

Han L, Jia J. Long-term effects of alcohol consumption on cognitive function in seniors: a cohort study in China. BMC Geriatr. 2021;21(1):699. 

Facts About Aging and Alcohol. NIH. Published July 2022. 

Older Adults. National Institute on Alcohol and Abuse.

Older Adults and Balance Problems. NIH. Published September 2022. 

Yeager S, Stepko B. How Alcohol Affects Us as We Age. AARP. Published January 2020.

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