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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Alcohol & older people

Waipiro me ngā kaumātua

We usually think of alcohol being something that young adults have problems with. But alcohol problems in older people has been called the "silent epidemic". This is because harmful drinking in older people is much more common than people realise.

Older people tend to drink more frequently than younger adults. But they have smaller quantities when they drink. They're also more likely to drink at home.

Some cases of harmful drinking in older people come from a lifelong pattern of drinking a bit too much. When these people get older, their excessive drinking starts to catch up with them. Other people develop drinking issues later in life. This might be after a stressful event like a bereavement. It could also be after they become the caregiver for an unwell partner.

The problems caused by excessive alcohol in older people are different to those of younger people. Older people may have multiple health problems or take several medications. This can make the effects of alcohol more unpredictable.

Older bodies also tend to manage alcohol less effectively. This means that an amount of alcohol that would be fine in a person 20 to 30 years younger, can be harmful in an older person.

It can be hard to work out how much of an older person's health problems are caused by alcohol.

Lower-risk drinking for older people

It's hard to know how much an older person can safely drink because every older person's state of health is different.

The important thing to realise is that most older people shouldn't drink as much as younger people. They should also reduce the amount they drink as age, health concerns and medications change with time.

Health consequences for older people drinking in excess

There are several types of risks if older people drink too much.

Interactions of alcohol with medications can lead to falling more often or becoming confused. They can also make the medication stay in the person's system longer or be less effective.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2023.

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Review key: HIAAD-16539