independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Older People and Alcohol

Older People are at more risk of harm from alcohol

Older people are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol due to their body’s decreasing ability to break it down. Alcohol circulates in an older person’s body for a longer time and the effects of drinking last longer. This in turn can leave older people vulnerable to a host of risks including falls, accidents, poor nutrition, health problems and financial difficulties.

Reducing the risk

For adults, the recommended low-risk limits for alcohol consumption are:

Men: 17 standard drinks (=170 grams (or 210 mls) of pure alcohol), spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days.

Women: 11 standard drinks (=110 grams (or 140 mls) of pure alcohol), spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days.

The low-risk guidelines apply to healthy, adults in the 18-65 age range. If you are an older person, you will need to drink less to stay within the low-risk range. And there are times older people are advised not to drink at all – for example, if on particular kinds of medication and if experiencing particular kinds of physical or mental health problems.

Keeping an eye on your drinking is important if you want to keep health risks to a minimum. Knowing how much you drink will allow you to see if you’re within the recommended low risk weekly limit. And you don’t need to have a drink problem to benefit from drinking less. Reducing your alcohol intake has many advantages including

  • Increased energy
  • Better sleep
  • Less weight gain
  • Increased stability in mood

What is a standard drink?

A standard drink contains about 10g of pure alcohol.

One standard drink is:

  • A half pint of lager
  • A single measure of spirits
  • A small glass of wine (around 100mls)
  • A bottle of any alcopop
  • A bottle of wine contains about 8 standard drinks

Remember it’s difficult to pour a standard drink at home without the guide of pub measures.

Alcohol and your body

Drinking alcohol puts older people at increased risk of developing more than 60 diseases and conditions some of which are caused by alcohol, while alcohol is a contributory factor in others. These include:

  • Cancer of the mouth, tongue and throat
  • Oesophageal cancer
  • Laryngeal cancers
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Cardiovascular diseases including stroke and coronary heart disease
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Liver cancer
  • Urinary incontinence

Alcohol could affect your ability to look after yourself properly and this could lead to long term health problems. It’s important for older people to eat properly, sleep well and remain warm. Alcohol might make you feel warm. However it actually leads to heat-loss. Alcohol affects the appetite and can lead to increased tiredness. Drinking could also affect memory, leading you to forget your medicines. Alcohol may also interfere with the effects of medications you are on.

You may be surprised to learn that most drink-related deaths and diseases actually occur among drinkers who are not dependent on alcohol.

It’s not just physical health that can be negatively affected by the way we drink. Drinking above low-risk weekly limits also increases the risk of damage to mental health, of having an accident or injury, as well as doing damage to relationships with friends and family


Accidents and injuries

Being drunk can contribute to existing problems with memory and balance. It also increases the risk of falls or forgetting about basic safety habits, like locking your doors or turning off your gas. Being drunk can also contribute to getting into risky situations that would be avoided if sober. One in four admissions to Accident and Emergency Departments are alcohol-related.

Alcohol & mental health

We often use alcohol to change a mood or mental state, to cope with situations we might find stressful or worrying, or to relax or unwind after a hectic day. Older people in particular are vulnerable to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Although in the short term a drink might seem like a good idea, drinking can increase depression and anxiety soon after use, leaving a person feeling low and unable to cope.

There are more effective and healthier ways to cope with life’s stresses. Eating well, exercising and finding enjoyable ways to relax and to cope are very important. And don’t forget to talk to someone you trust about your worries and concerns.

If you are finding it hard to cope, support is also available from organisations like The Samaritans or Alone

For more information about alcohol and your health, please visit the following sites:

Age Action Ireland works by empowering older people to live full lives as actively engaged citizens and to secure their rights to comprehensive high quality services according to their changing needs

Age and Opportunity promotes greater participation by older people in society

Mental Health Ireland is a national voluntary organisation which aims to promote mental health and support persons with a mental illness aims to improve awareness and understanding of mental health in Ireland

The Samaritans aims to improve people’s emotional health in order to create a greater sense of well being. They provide support with a 24-hour telephone line, by email, by letter or face to face, and also through work in the local community

Aware is the national voluntary organisation providing support through depression