Is Alcohol Safe for Older Adults?

As we age, our tolerance for alcohol goes down.
September 3, 2023
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Key Points
  • Alcohol is more likely to exacerbate problematic situations as we get older, and if you have any sort of cognitive issue or an unsteady gait, you should avoid it entirely
  • It can also interact with medications and diseases that you may have, so it’s critical to understand the relationship between it and your particular medical issues
  • So far, the data on cannabis use and older adults for medical use is not compelling
  • For many of the ailments it’s been used to treat medically, like anxiety and nausea, the medical community has seen more promising results with other solutions
Table of Contents

Many older adults use both alcohol and cannabis for recreational use. Below, we’ll break down the data on how both impact us as we age.

Alcohol Tolerance and Age

As we get older, we metabolize alcohol differently based on the change in fat and water content in the body. All things being equal, if a 21 year old at the same weight as a 71 year old drinks the same amount, the 71 year old will have a higher blood alcohol level.

This isn’t to say older adults shouldn’t drink, but rather to be more mindful around drinking behavior to avoid any sort of downsides.

Alcohol Is a Brain Stress Test

Alcohol is more likely to exacerbate problematic situations as we get older: if you have a cognitive issue and add alcohol, it’s in most instances going to get progressively worse.

Generally speaking, if you’re struggling with any sort of cognitive issue, it’s best to avoid alcohol, which can increase confusion and forgetfulness. It’s also best to avoid alcohol if you have an unsteady gait, as it can increase the fall risk.

Additionally, Alcohol can interact with medications and diseases that you may have, so it’s critical to understand the relationship between it and your particular medical issues. Even drugs you might not think would have a relationship with alcohol often do: for example, histamine blockers like famotidine (commonly known as Pepcid) increase the level of alcohol in the blood. Each time you add a new medication, we’d recommend speaking to your physician and reading the label to understand how it interacts with alcohol.

Alcohol Intake Is a U-Shaped Curve For Heart Health

There’s some evidence to suggest that modest alcohol consumption may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. The data shows that 1-2 drinks may be better than zero drinks – but anything over a moderate amount is linked to poor health outcomes. Note that moderate drinking is defined as an average of one drink per day for women and one or two for men.

Many of us are familiar with the negative impacts of too much alcohol - liver damage, cancer, strokes, mood disorders, osteoporosis. These risks only go up as we age. If you’re going to drink, it’s best to stick to the moderate amount recommended - and to make sure it doesn’t interact with any medication or medical issues.

Alcoholism Is More Difficult To Spot In Older Adults

Alcoholism is on the rise amongst older adults, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Michigan’s 2021 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 27% of respondents reported having six or more drinks on at least one occasion in the past year, and 7% reported alcohol-related blackouts.

It can be more difficult to detect alcoholism in older adults because there’s often less absenteeism: because many older adults are retired and may not have a set schedule of commitments, more widely-known signs of alcoholism (like missing work or other commitments) aren’t in the equation. Additionally, because many older adults are isolated in their own home, they might not have a community around them that could spot this behavior.

If you think your loved one might be struggling with alcoholism, this guide from WebMD can help you take the first steps in addressing it.

The Data on Cannabis

So far, the data on cannabis use and older adults for medical use is not particularly compelling. For many of the ailments it’s been used to treat medically, like anxiety and nausea, the medical community has seen more promising results with other behavioral or medical solutions.

With that said, some older adults are able to tolerate cannabis for responsible recreational use. If you have any cognitive impairment or anxiety, it should be avoided, as it’s likely to worsen it. Similar to alcohol, we become more sensitive to cannabis with age, so the impact of the potential dangers and pitfalls increase. It also interacts with various medical conditions and medications, so it’s important to read up on those relationships prior to consumption to avoid a negative interaction.

Illegal drugs are not recommended for people of any age, particularly older adults.

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