Alcoholism and the Elderly: Signs of Abuse

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : December 10, 
| 4 Sources

alcoholism and the elderly

The issue of alcoholism and the elderly is common but oftentimes overlooked. Statistics paint a worrying picture of alcoholism and the elderly. It is estimated that in the U.S. 6% of retirees drink heavily and that there are between 1.1 and 2.3 million over 65 who are alcoholic.

Elderly alcoholism is often overlooked or ignored.

There is a general (unspoken) perception prevalent throughout society that the elderly have outlived their 'usefulness'.

They are no longer 'contributing' to the community therefore their problems and the issues affecting them, tend not to be prioritized.

However, elderly alcoholism is on the rise and tackling it would reduce the burden elderly alcoholics place on the welfare system and improve their quality of life and that of their families.

Why do the Elderly Turn to Alcohol?

Every case is different so this is a difficult question to answer.

However there are certain aspects of aging that can be triggers for alcoholism.

These include:

Signs of Alcoholism in the Elderly

The biggest problem in diagnosing alcoholism in the elderly is that many of the signs of alcohol abuse are also signs of aging.

Family and health professionals need to be particularly vigilant in distinguishing between the two.

It has been estimated that up to 60% of elderly patients entering acute medical wards are active alcoholics.

Yet so often their alcoholism is overlooked.


It seems that some doctors think that nothing can be done with elderly alcoholics. It is believed, wrongly, that treatment will not be effective and, anyway, they do not have many years left, so why bother.

However, this is often not the case. Elderly alcoholics usually respond well to treatment and many go on to live long and happy lives.


  • Disorientation
  • Frequent falls
  • Depression
  • Forgetfulness/Dementia
  • Slurred speech
  • Malnutrition
  • Confusion
  • A decline in personal hygiene

The above signs could also be a result of aging but there are signs specific to alcoholism such as drinking alone, an increase in alcohol consumption, smell of alcohol on the breath and defensiveness when questioned about drinking.

Read signs of alcoholism for more symptoms of drink dependency.

Health, Alcoholism and the Elderly

Alcohol drunk in moderation can have health benefits for young and old alike.

However, if alcohol is abused then the effects can be devastating. Excessive alcohol consumption in the elderly can lead to:

  • Strokes
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcoholic liver disease, including alcoholic cirrhosis.
  • A higher risk of cancer in the head, neck and throat.
  • Dangerous interactions with prescription drugs.
  • A decline in the functioning of the brain. Accelerating brain impairment, dementia and wet brain syndrome.
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of falls, in particular hip fractures, which might need surgery and all the risks associated with it.
As people age, so the amount of water stored in their bodies falls. This means that there is less water to dilute the alcohol and so its effects on the elderly are greater than on the young.

Another issue specific to alcoholism and the elderly is that as we age so our tolerance to alcohol falls (reverse tolerance) so less is required to experience the negative effects of alcohol.

Some older individuals can feel intoxicated easily even without increasing the amount of alcohol they consume.

Elderly folks are also likely to experience more issues with fairly small amounts of alcohol ingested because of a smaller volume of distribution and slower metabolism.

In short an elderly alcoholic is risking their health every time they lift a glass to their mouth. It is is of the utmost importance that they get treatment before it is too late.

Treatment of Elderly Alcoholism

According to a University of Iowa Study fewer than one in five treatment centers treatment centers in the U.S. have alcoholism programs tailored to meet the needs of the elderly.

Why is this important?

Because aged alcoholics have different needs to younger drink dependents, emphasis must always be on age-specific programs and treatments.

Research has also shown that programs specifically for the aged are more effective than mixed-age treatment.

Alcohol treatment programs tailored for the elderly generally have a slower pace of treatment, a less confrontational approach, facilities to cope with other medical issues the elderly may have, disabled access and allow for more familial input.

This last point is important because the elderly recovering alcoholic will require A LOT of support once they complete treatment. Not least the vacuum left by not drinking alcohol will have to be filled with something else.

It is important that before an elderly (over 65) alcoholic enters treatment that you, or they, insure that the facility is able to cope with their specific needs. To help you choose the right treatment for elderly alcoholics, read the alcohol treatment facilities checklist.

"If you're unsure whether alcohol may be a problem, speak with one of our supportive counselors. With many having first-hand experience they understand the struggle. The free chat is confidential & they are available 24/7."

If you or someone close to you wants help and advice on quitting drinking then take a look at the following pages:

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


Psychiatric Times. Elderly Alcohol Use Disorders: Epidemiology, Screening, and Assessment Issues. May 10, 2014.

American Family Physician. Alcoholism in the Elderly. March 15, 2000.

National Institute on Aging. Facts About Aging and Alcohol. May 16, 2017.

Journal of Geriatric Mental Health. Alcohol use among the elderly: Issues and considerations. 2017.;year=2017;volume=4;issue=1;spage=4;epage=10;aulast=Lal

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