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Alcohol & Health
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Updated on December 1, 2023
10 min read

Elderly Alcoholism: Symptoms, Risks & Treatment

Heavy drinking entails consuming 15 or more per week for men and 8 or more for women. Data shows that about 6% of older people drink heavily. The majority of these heavy drinkers are older men. 

Older adults may drink for several reasons. But more than that, understanding why older people drink and the available treatment options helps if you or a senior loved one struggles with alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Is It Safe for Older Adults To Drink Alcohol?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks or less (for men) and one drink or less (for women) daily. 

Regardless of the volume of intake, drinking alcohol when you’re an older adult puts you at increased risk of:

  • Falls
  • Accidents
  • Car crashes
  • Other unintentional injuries

Thus, alcohol problems bring increased safety concerns in the elderly.

Between 2006 and 2016, alcohol-related medical injuries in older adults increased by 50% because of:

  • Slower reaction times
  • Interfered eye movement
  • Impaired information processing
  • Affected coordination

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Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly

The health risks associated with alcoholism are abundant at any age. However, because it becomes more challenging to maintain good health as we age, the effects of drinking too much alcohol are especially detrimental for seniors.

Some of the most common alcohol-related health complications among older adults include:

  • Diabetes
  • Decreased libido
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Kidney problems
  • Heart disease/failure
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Liver problems, including fatty liver disease
  • Alcohol-induced liver disease
  • Bone disease
  • Memory problems, often related to a vitamin B deficiency, which also triggers confusion, issues with muscle coordination, and eye paralysis
  • Mood disorders
  • Dehydration, which can trigger kidney problems, brain swelling, seizures, coma, and death

Interactions with Medications

Many older adults take prescribed and over-the-counter medications that can make alcohol use disorder even deadlier. Combined with alcohol, pain medication, or even cold and allergy medicines, the presence of all these in their systems can lead to potentially fatal consequences. 

Medications commonly prescribed to older adults that interact dangerously with drinking habits include the following:

  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Cough syrup
  • Sleeping aids
  • Mood stabilizers / anti-anxiety medication
  • Antidepressants and anti-psychotics
  • Herbal remedies, such as St. John’s Wort, chamomile, and lavender

Some effects associated with mixing alcohol and medication include:

  • Stomach or intestinal bleeding
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Liver damage
  • Increased drowsiness
  • Diarrhea

Alcohol Withdrawal in Older Adults

Older adults are at higher risk of experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, leading to fatal seizures, delirium tremens (shaking frenzy), falls, and cardiac arrest. 

Plus, existing health problems and geriatric mental health conditions make elderly patients experiencing withdrawal more likely to experience accelerated decline. Thus, early detection of alcohol misuse is imperative.

the health effects of alcohol

Seniors already have a heightened risk of many of these health issues. Drinking too much alcohol further increases the risks they face.

How Alcohol Affects the Body and Its Restorative Abilities

Binge drinking in older adults can influence how the body heals, affecting how an individual ages. Over time, lean body mass in seniors declines, leaving less muscle to absorb alcohol.

Alcohol’s other effects on elderly bodies include:

  • Disrupted sleep: Deteriorates cells and causes oxidative stress
  • Impaired healthy habits: Includes exercise, hygiene, and nutrition
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Shortens the body’s telomeres, DNA strands that protect the body from damage
  • Lapses in judgment, focus, and memory

Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Aging?

There is no hard evidence that alcohol use directly causes aging. However, alcohol dehydrates you and is a diuretic, pulling fluids out of your body and sapping the skin of moisture.

With regular use, alcohol-induced dehydration can cause sagginess, dryness, and wrinkling. Other skin-related issues that result from alcohol use in older adults include broken capillaries, which tend to burst after heavy drinking.

Burst capillaries appear as red, splotchy spots on the skin and are more likely to be visible in the elderly. Older adults who drink alcohol regularly are also 33% more likely to develop arcus senilis, or aging around the eyes. 

Does Alcohol Dependence Cause Dementia?

Heavy alcohol use in older adults can increase the risk of developing dementia. 

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), elderly patients who drink heavily are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related health problems than those who drink moderately.

When an older person engages in heavy drinking, their bodies produce less vitamin thiamine B1, potentially leading to Korsakoff’s Syndrome, which impacts short-term memory.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Dementia

Signs of alcohol-related dementia include the following:

  • Inability to stay focused on a task without becoming distracted
  • Failure to plan, organize, and solve problems
  • Inability to set goals, pass judgments, and make decisions
  • Low motivation to perform daily tasks and activities
  • Poor control over emotions, occasional outbursts
  • Problems understanding how others think and feel
  • Inability to comprehend new information or recall knowledge and events
  • Lack of physical balance and increased likelihood of falling over
  • Increased apathy, depression, and irritability

Detecting and Treating Alcohol-Related Dementia in the Elderly

An assessment for alcohol-related dementia might include a paper-based test, physical exam, and brain scan. It’s challenging to diagnose dementia in older adults who misuse alcohol, especially if they already suffer from memory-related conditions.

Many professionals recommend that the person quit drinking before undergoing a medical assessment for memory problems.

Alcohol treatment for older adults with dementia will likely occur in-hospital, as withdrawals can cause delirium. In severe cases, the person may become increasingly agitated or experience hallucinations.


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Causes of Alcoholism in the Elderly

Widowers over 75 tend to struggle the most with alcohol use disorder. More than 10% of all hospital admissions among the elderly are linked to drug and alcohol use. It’s estimated that more than half of all nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems.

Reasons why seniors struggle with alcoholism can include:

  • Grief, especially after the loss of a spouse or loved one
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Not feeling useful or with purpose
  • Financial problems
  • Physical and mental health issues

There is no single cause of alcoholism in older adults. Some seniors use alcohol as a coping tool to help them deal with the challenges they face in their later years. 

Like cases of alcoholism in any other age group, the reasons are as varied as the individuals with the problem. The challenges that occur as we age are as tricky as those we face at any age and many turn to alcohol to cope.


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Symptoms of Alcoholism in the Elderly

There are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances. The health effects are the same, especially in the long-term.

Knowing the symptoms of AUD in older people helps you recognize if you or a loved one has a problem.

Symptoms of alcoholism in the elderly include:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Failing hygiene
  • Skipping doctor’s appointments
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Frequent falls and other unexplained injuries
  • Frequent emergency room visits

Alcoholism as a Coping Strategy

Some seniors feel as if they have “outlived their usefulness.” Their children are grown; they’ve retired; they don’t have the same responsibilities they did when they were younger.

Some people welcome the relief of having no obligations, but others struggle with it. Some turn to alcohol to escape these negative feelings. Instead of searching for meaning later in life, they use alcohol as a coping strategy.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse in Older Adults

There are several treatments available to help seniors with alcohol use disorder.

Some of the most common treatment approaches include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps seniors rebuild their social support networks and better manage their difficult emotions
  • Family or marital therapy: Helps seniors build strong bonds with loved ones to help them through difficult times
  • Group therapy: Helps seniors establish connections with peers who are also struggling with AUD
  • Medically supervised detox and inpatient treatment programs: Help seniors safely remove alcohol from their bodies under the supervision of medical professionals and immerse themselves in a treatment environment.

Although it’s possible to participate in a generic treatment program for adults, many seniors benefit from treatment in a facility tailored to their age group. These programs tend to have a slower pace and are less confrontational than the other options.

In addition, seniors can suffer from co-occurring substance abuse and mood disorders, which may lead to a dual diagnosis. Fortunately, many dual-diagnosis treatment programs can rectify both conditions.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatments for Alcohol Use in Seniors

For seniors with solid support systems at home, outpatient treatment may suffice and comprises two primary options:

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

These hospital-based treatment programs include:

  • Mental health care
  • Educational classes
  • Physical healthcare
  • Skills training
  • Family therapy
  • Aftercare

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs)

IOPs occur 3 to 5 days per week, with a total of at least 9 hours. These programs aim to reverse the effects of failing health by:

  • Maintaining abstinence in the patient
  • Achieving behavioral changes
  • Addressing psychosocial issues
  • Developing support systems

Seniors who live far away from their immediate family may benefit more from inpatient programs, as these facilities can provide 24/7 care that facilitates access to medical services on-demand.

There are also 12-step programs designed for older people.

State-Funded vs. Luxury Rehabilitation Programs for Substance Abuse in Seniors

Families on a budget can consider state-funded treatment programs, which typically cover detox, housing, therapy, and additional support. Patients can typically access these programs with Medicare or Medicaid. 

By comparison, private rehabilitation facilities may include additional amenities.

Private or luxury rehabilitation amenities can include:

  • Expanded lodging
  • Individualized care
  • Gym
  • Spa
  • Private rooms
  • Educational programs

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Seniors

Medication-assisted alcohol treatment is rarely used for seniors because two of the medications⁠—disulfiram and naltrexone⁠—are not safe for older patients with AUD. 

Disulfiram increases the risk of serious side effects in seniors. Naltrexone, which reduces alcohol cravings, has not been evaluated in treating older patients.

Doctors encourage family members of seniors with AUD to take an active role in their loved one’s recovery.

Family support is important for more people with addiction, especially older adults needing cognitive and physical support. For some, transitioning from a treatment program to a nursing home is the safest and healthiest option.

Does Insurance Cover Alcohol Rehabilitation for Seniors?

According to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), insurance companies must cover alcohol misuse in seniors. Alternatively, you can enroll your loved one in a federal Medicare insurance program, which provides coverage for alcohol abuse and alcoholism in adults over 65.

How To Help a Senior Family Member Struggling with Alcohol Misuse

Rising alcohol use in seniors is a global health pandemic that family members can work to rectify together. If your senior family member is addicted to alcohol, here are a few ways to help them stop drinking.

1. Know the Potential Triggers

Consider whether your loved one is experiencing a health-related issue or recent emotional trauma. Note signs, particularly:

  • The lack of a healthy diet
  • Wanting to be alone often
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Irritability and sadness
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Memory problems
  • Failure to take baths or keep clean

2. Provide Social Support

Staying in touch with your loved one can provide unbeatable mental benefits. If you live away from your loved one, consider hiring a caregiver who can help you stay in touch.

3. Find Healthier Coping Mechanisms

Many older adults develop alcohol problems because of poor coping mechanisms. Provide your loved one with healthier ways to cope through exercise, relaxation techniques, and enjoyable activities. 

4. Buy Alcohol-Free Alternatives

If your loved one enjoys the taste of liquor, beer, or wine, consider providing nonalcoholic products that taste similar. Use these alternatives as a stepping-stone toward eliminating alcohol from the household entirely. 

5. Encourage Volunteering

If your loved one is still physically able, encouraging them to serve their local community through volunteer opportunities can keep them occupied and inspired. 

Together, you can participate in food drives or summer programs. They might even consider mentoring younger people who have struggled with similar problems.


Older adults may turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for loneliness, financial issues, or grief. This increases the risk of falls and accidents and exacerbates existing health conditions. Alcohol use in the elderly may also affect the body’s restorative abilities, potentially causing alcohol-related dementia. 

Fortunately, medication-assisted treatment programs for seniors are plentiful, along with inpatient and outpatient options. You can support a senior family member struggling with alcoholism by identifying their triggers, encouraging healthier coping mechanisms, and finding more fulfilling activities to enjoy with friends and family.

Updated on December 1, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on December 1, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Rigler, S.K. “Alcoholism in the Elderly.” American Family Physician, 2013.
  2. Ciulla, A. “The Dos and Don’ts of Alcohol Intervention for Seniors.” U.S. News, 2018.
  3. Kim et al. “Alcohol and cognition in the elderly: a review.” Psychiatry Investigation Journal, 2012.
  4. “Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” National Insitute on Aging. 2022.
  5. Grucza et al. “Trends in Adult Alcohol Use and Binge Drinking in the Early 21st-Century United States: A Meta-Analysis of 6 National Survey Series. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2018.
  6. Sui-Hin et al. Identification and Management of Alcohol Abuse and Withdrawal in Elders.” Multidisciplinary Medical Information Network, 2023.
  7. Dementia, disability and frailty in later life – mid-life approaches to delay or prevent onset.” National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2015.
  8. Saini et al. “Alcoholism and senior citizens.” International Journal of Education and Management Studies, 2013.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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