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Seniors and alcohol abuse

Whether you’re toasting a major milestone or enjoying a beer while you watch the big game, responsible drinking can be part of a healthy lifestyle. A little alcohol may even be good for you. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to cross the line between moderate drinking and alcohol abuse later in life, when it’s especially risky.

While some older adults who abuse alcohol have imbibed their whole adult lives, others turn to alcohol to help cope with major life changes, such as losing a loved one or facing major health issues. Some seniors report feeling lonely, bored or depressed, and may drink alcohol to ease unpleasant emotions.

Alcohol abuse can be especially dangerous for older adults. It can lead to or worsen serious health problems, and alcohol may dangerously interact with certain medications. Older adults may become drunk even from small amounts of alcohol, and may act confused or forgetful—behaviors that could be mistaken for dementia. Drinking also increases the risk of falls.

How much is too much?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends that healthy adults ages 65 and older limit drinking to seven drinks a week, with no more than three on any one day. A drinking problem is defined not just by the amount you drink, but also your relationship with alcohol.

The NIAAA outlines the signs of alcohol dependence, or alcoholism:

  • craving—strong urge to drink
  • loss of control—can’t stop drinking after starting
  • physical dependence—shakiness, nausea, sweating or anxiety after stopping drinking
  • tolerance—needing increasing amounts for the same effect

Getting help

Talk with your primary care physician, who can assess your overall health and offer support and advice. He or she may direct you to helpful resources, including support groups, therapists or addiction specialists.