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Alcohol and older people

As you get older, your body is less able to break down alcohol. You are also more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol.

Older people tend to drink more often than younger people. They can also drink at harmful levels. 

Health problems

Your body works less efficiently when you get older, including your liver. This means your body does not process alcohol as well as younger people. The same amount of alcohol can have a more damaging effect on your body as you get older.

Alcohol can cause many health problems, such as:

Too much alcohol can also worsen existing health conditions, such as:

Brain functions

Alcohol also affects brain functions more in older people. This increases problems with coordination, memory and judgement.

This can make you more vulnerable to accidents and injuries, such as:

  • falling
  • road traffic accidents
  • forgetting to turn off electrical appliances or lock doors

You are also more at risk of being exploited or abused by someone else if your judgement is affected by alcohol.

Alcohol and the brain

Mental health

Some people drink alcohol to relieve feelings of sadness, loneliness, stress or worry.

While alcohol may make you feel better for a little while, it is not a healthy way to cope. The feelings of anxiety and depression will come back again, often worse than before.

Alcohol and mental health


Your tolerance to alcohol lowers as you get older. This means alcohol has a greater effect on your body and mind as you get older.

Increased tolerance could be a sign of alcohol misuse or alcohol dependency. If you notice you are drinking more than you once did, speak to your GP.

Tips to avoid alcohol tolerance

Alcohol and medicine

Alcohol can interfere with medicines you are taking. It can stop medicines from working or increase their effects. For example, alcohol can make the sedative effect of tranquillisers much stronger.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the medicines you are taking. They can tell you if it is safe to drink alcohol with them.

Drug interactions with alcohol

If an older person is drinking in a harmful way

It can be easy to miss the signs that alcohol is harming an older person. You may mistake them for other problems.

Non-urgent advice: Get help with problem alcohol use

Freephone 1800 459 459 for confidential advice

Signs that alcohol is harming an older person include:

  • problems sleeping
  • problems with memory, thinking or concentration
  • frequent falls and unexplained bruising
  • low mood or depression
  • incontinence, urinary retention
  • poor hygiene and self-neglect
  • unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • changes in eating habits
  • slurred speech
  • tremors (shaking), poor coordination, shuffling walk
  • seizures (fits)

Explore some of the reasons they may be drinking

Some common reasons are:

  • coping with bereavement
  • coping with a loss of career or social status
  • social isolation, loneliness and boredom
  • dealing with getting older
  • losing independence or self-esteem
  • feeling more frail or unwell
  • needing help with daily living, reduced coping skills
  • managing the stress of caring for an elderly partner or family member or family conflict
  • physical problems – disability, pain, trouble sleeping
  • the upheaval of moving into residential care

Find healthier ways to cope

Find out about services for older people in their area, including:

Help them to develop interests and activities that do not involve alcohol, including:

  • taking up a new hobby
  • finding opportunities to socialise or volunteer
  • rediscovering interests and activities they had in the past

Help them get medical advice for physical problems. This will avoid them ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol.

Offer company, practical support and a listening ear.

Page last reviewed: 2 November 2023
Next review due: 2 November 2026