Five middle-aged men and women stand around a bar counter, smiling and laughing. They are clinking their cocktail glasses together

How Alcohol Affects You as You Age

At No DUI Larimer, we spend a lot of time focused on the impacts of substances on young people – because they are most at risk of impaired driving. But we know impaired driving and substance use happens in all age groups. In fact, those age 65 and older (retirement age) are most likely to drink on five consecutive nights each week (Sydney Morning Herald).


Just as our bodies change as we age, so does their reaction to various substances, including alcohol. While many of us enjoy a drink or two without giving it much thought in our younger years, it’s important to consider how alcohol affects us as we age. Understanding these effects can help you make informed decisions about your drinking habits and prioritize your long-term health.

Five middle-aged men and women stand around a bar counter, smiling and laughing. They are clinking their cocktail glasses together

Changes in Metabolism and Tolerance

One of the most notable changes that occur as we age is a decline in metabolism. Our bodies become less efficient at processing alcohol, leading to a slower breakdown of alcohol in the bloodstream. This means that as we get older, we may feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and intensely than we did in our youth.


Additionally, muscle mass is replaced by fat tissue as we age, meaning our tolerance for alcohol tends to decrease with age. It takes less alcohol to reach the same level of intoxication – meaning, someone in their 50s who drinks two glasses of wine will have a higher BAC (blood alcohol content) than someone of similar body mass in their 20s who drinks the same amount.


Increased Risk of Health Problems

As you age, blood flow to your liver and liver enzyme levels decrease. This means alcohol spends more time in your liver before entering the general bloodstream or being metabolized, which heightens the risk of liver damage.


Long-term alcohol consumption has been linked to a range of issues, including liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of certain cancers. Moreover, alcohol can exacerbate existing health conditions common in older adults, such as diabetes and osteoporosis.


Finally, alcohol impairment can make certain conditions difficult for doctors to diagnose. For example, “alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack” (National Institute on Aging). Alcohol impairment can also mimic the symptoms (forgetfulness, slurred speech, confusion, loss of coordination) of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or a stroke.


Impact on Cognitive Function

Alcohol can also have a significant impact on cognitive function, particularly in older adults. Studies have shown that heavy drinking can accelerate cognitive decline and increase the risk of conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Even moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with impairments in memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities, which can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life.

A middle-aged man and woman stand at an island in a brightly-lit kitchen. The woman cooks while the man flips through a magazine and smiles at her. Both hold glasses of white wine

Potential for Prescription Drug Interactions

Many older adults take multiple medications to manage chronic health conditions, and alcohol can interact with these medications in harmful ways. Alcohol can amplify the effects of certain medications or interfere with their effectiveness, leading to adverse reactions and potential health risks. It’s essential for older adults to talk to their healthcare providers about any alcohol consumption and potential interactions with their medications.


Medications that are known to react with alcohol include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Antibiotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines (cold and allergy medications)
  • Aspirin
  • Blood thinners
  • Diabetes drugs


Increased Risk of Accidents


Because alcohol impairs judgment, hampers coordination, and slows reaction time, it greatly increases the risk of falls or other injuries in aging adults. Alcohol is a factor in:

  • 40% of fatal burn injuries
  • 50% of fatal drownings
  • 65% of fatal falls

*National Institute on Aging


Of course, all adults who drink alcohol and drive are at higher risk of traffic crashes than those who drive sober. Even without alcohol, the risk of a car accident increases starting at age 55. Older drivers are also more often seriously hurt in car crashes than younger adults.


Potential for Small Amounts of Alcohol to Decrease Risk of Certain Diseases

Research indicates that middle-aged or older individuals who are in good health and fitness may experience a reduced risk of developing certain conditions and diseases by consuming light to moderate amounts of alcohol. It is important to note that some of these diseases, such as dementia and depression, may be worsened by alcohol consumption if they are already present.


  • Atherosclerosis
  • Bone loss
  • Cerebrovascular disease (including stroke)
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Other heart conditions


How You Can Make Informed Choices About Your Drinking Habits

While the effects of alcohol may change as we age, it’s never too late to make positive changes to your drinking habits. Here are some tips for older adults to make informed choices about alcohol consumption:

  1. Know your limits: Be aware of how alcohol affects you personally and know when to stop. Consider setting limits for yourself ahead of time.
  2. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water when consuming alcohol to help mitigate its effects on your body.
  3. Alternate drinks: If you choose to drink alcohol, alternate alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic options to pace yourself and reduce overall consumption.
  4. Seek support: If you’re struggling to cut back on alcohol or have concerns about your drinking habits, don’t hesitate to seek support from friends, family, or a healthcare professional. Use the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator to find treatment options in your area.

By understanding the changes that occur as we grow older and making informed choices about alcohol consumption, you can prioritize your health and enjoy a vibrant life at any age. Remember, moderation is key. Make the Call for a healthier, happier future.

a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman smiling and embracing a young man and woman who appear to be their grandchildren.




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