Rising alcohol use among older adults

As the baby boomer generation moves into retirement age, it is expected that by the year 2034, older adults (ages 65 and up) will outnumber children in the United States for the first time in history. As the population ages, demand for healthcare will increase, and rising rates of alcohol use in older adults may create additional challenges to an already burdened healthcare system.

Trends in alcohol use in older adults

Alcohol use in older adults has been trending upward over the years, particularly among women. One epidemiologic survey determined that in the United States between 2001 and 2013, among people 65 and older, the rate of alcohol use disorder increased 107%. The University of Michigan’s 2021 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that although the majority of older adults surveyed were drinking alcohol at low to moderate levels, there was a subset of older adults exceeding the recommended guidelines for alcohol use. In particular, 20% of respondents drank alcohol four or more times per week; 27% reported having six or more drinks on at least one occasion in the past year; and 7% reported alcohol-related blackouts.

Negative effects of alcohol use in older adults

Drinking too much alcohol can have negative physical and mental health consequences, including heart and liver problems, memory issues, mood disorders, as well as an increased risk of cancer and a weakened immune system. In addition, age-related changes in the body place older adults who drink alcohol at additional risk. Older adults have increased sensitivity to the effects of alcohol because they typically metabolize alcohol more slowly. Lean body mass also declines with age, and with less muscle to absorb alcohol, older adults feel the effects of alcohol more quickly, even with consumption of lower amounts of alcohol than when they were younger. Older women are at higher risk of these effects compared with older men. Combined with other physical changes in the body due to age, older adults who drink alcohol are susceptible to falls, bone fractures, and other unintentional injuries. Given that many older adults are taking multiple prescription medications, another important concern for this age group is the dangerous and sometimes fatal consequence of mixing medications with alcohol.

Older adults’ alcohol use and the COVID-19 pandemic

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Emerging evidence indicates that individuals in the United States and globally are increasing their alcohol use in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research that has examined older adults’ alcohol use during the early phases of the pandemic has generally found that compared to younger adults, older adults report smaller increases in alcohol use. However, a national survey study and a study of social media users both found that older adults reporting depression and anxiety symptoms during the pandemic were more likely to increase their alcohol use than those without these symptoms.

Tips and resources for older adults

  • If you drink alcohol, follow the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: men should consume no more than two standard drinks in a day, and women should consume no more than one standard drink in a day. A standard drink is defined as having 14 grams of alcohol, which is generally contained in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits. These dietary guidelines are for those without any other contraindications; individuals who are taking medications that interact with alcohol, or those who are managing a medical or mental health condition that can be made worse by drinking, should avoid drinking alcohol entirely.
  • If you have depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, consider not drinking alcohol, as it can worsen these symptoms. Similarly, if you have problems with sleep you should avoid alcohol, as it can disrupt sleep.
  • If you would like to learn more about your own drinking, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) Rethinking Drinking site.
  • To learn out more about treatment options for alcohol use disorder, visit NIAAA’s Treatment Navigator Website.
  • Avoid social isolation. If physical distancing is necessary due to COVID-19 safety precautions, reach out to friends and family via phone, video, or in outdoor settings.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, or loneliness, seek professional help.
  • For a list of additional healthy aging resources, visit the 

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” – Matthew 7:11

 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22

 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” – Philippians 4:6

 “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23

 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7

 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” – James 1:2-3

 “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” – Proverbs 3:6

 “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.”- Proverbs 16:3

 “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” Luke 12:24 – Luke 12:24

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