Feature Article

Alcohol and the elderly: good news, bad news and the missed diagnosis

Greg Whelan



Alcohol has potential benefits and problems for all ages. A little is beneficial; a lot is harmful. Here is what happens, and how to make a diagnosis that is often missed.

Key Points

  • Although the elderly are less likely than their younger counterparts to consume harmful or hazardous levels of alcohol, those who do may suffer alcohol-related health problems.
  • Alcohol-related problems in the elderly are often caused by drug interactions; altered drug pharmacokinetics and alcohol metabolism and increased medication use in the elderly contribute to this.
  • Many elderly subjects with drinking problems are not diagnosed.
  • Late onset heavy drinkers should be distinguished from those who started drinking early as they respond better to therapy.
  • Treatment of alcohol-related problems in the elderly often comprises modification of drinking habits; however, withdrawal support is needed for those who are alcohol dependent.