Advice for Later Life

Alcohol and later life

In general, alcohol consumption declines as we get older, however today’s population of elderly people may be heavier drinkers than previous generations. This is thought to be due to greater social acceptance of alcohol and having more money available following retirement.

How older people may use alcohol

Changes to lifestyle such as retirement, bereavement and decreased social life, can be some of the main contributory factors among people who develop a problem with drinking later in life. Isolation and loneliness are common in old age and can lead to increased drinking. Coming to terms with illness and pain which might accompany old age can mean that people use or start to use alcohol as an anaesthetic – this may also be seen as a way of justifying the drinking.

People may use alcohol to help them sleep, especially if they are experiencing some sort of physical or emotional distress. However, although alcohol in small quantities may aid sleep, in larger quantities it can itself cause disturbed sleep patterns and wakefulness during the night.

How alcohol affects us in later life

As we get older our tolerance to alcohol is lowered so it is possible that the same amount of alcohol can have a more harmful effect than it would on a younger person. We become less tolerant to alcohol because of physical changes to our bodies including:

  • A fall in ratio of body water to fat – less water for the alcohol to be diluted in
  • Poor kidney and liver function
  • Altered responsiveness of the brain – alcohol will have a faster effect on the brain

It is therefore possible that the same amount of alcohol may produce a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in the elderly than younger people.

Consequences of drinking for the older person

  • Elderly car drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a motoring accident after consuming even a small amount of alcohol, than they are at a zero level of alcohol
  • Alcohol increases the risk of slips trips and falls and admissions to hospital
  • Alcohol depresses the brain function to a greater extent in older people, impairing coordination and memory, which can lead to falls and general confusion. It can also heighten emotions leading to moodiness, irritability or even violence
  • Alcohol in excess affects digestion, making it more difficult to absorb vitamins and minerals. It can also alter the effect of medications we are prescribed, reducing or enhancing their strength

If you are worried about your drinking or that of a partner or family member please contact the alcohol liaison service for more advice.