Overview for Health Care Providers - Alcohol

As people age, they naturally become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Older adults are not able to absorb alcohol at the rate they once did which causes the alcohol to stay in their bodies longer. An older adult drinking the same amount as a younger adult will have a higher percentage of alcohol in their body. (3) The combination of these effects lowers the body’s tolerance for alcohol.

Why is it important?

  • An older adult can develop alcohol-related problems even when drinking habits remained the same (3)
  • Heavy drinking can damage the liver, heart, brain, muscle and bone
  • Heavy drinking can increase risk of cancers and immune disorders (3)
  • Drinking can make existing health conditions worse: diabetes, memory problems, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, mood disorders and osteoporosis (3)

Common Causes

  • Major life changes (e.g. death of a loved one, moving to a new home, failing health, poverty) can cause loneliness, boredom, anxiety, or depression (2)
  • Older adults faced with large amounts of free time after retirement may turn to alcohol (4)

Key Considerations

  • Drinking alcohol while taking some medicines can cause sleepiness, confusion, lack of coordination, which can lead to injury (3)
  • Mixing alcohol with medication may cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and other more serious health problems (e.g. common medications include aspirin, sleeping pills, pain pills, anti-depressants, laxatives, cough syrups, antihistamines) (3) (2)
  • Alcohol screening, brief intervention and referral activities among primary care and other providers have been shown to be cost-effective and efficacious (1)
  • A team-based approach for alcohol screening, brief intervention and referral should ideally involve:
  • A medical assistant or nurse conducting the screening/assessment of all patients upon arrival;
  • Implementing a system to flag reminders in patient chart for periodic screening;
  • Introduction of behaviour health counselor when health risks related to alcohol use are reviewed;
  • When a problem has been identified, collaborate with and in-house counselor, social       
  • Worker or other health professional to provide intervention and follow-up (1)
  • Provide information to all new patients outlining behavioural health services  within the clinic,including screening, assessment and help for behavioural change and goal setting (1)


1.      Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. (2012).  Alcohol Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral.  
         Retrieved March 5, 2014 from:

2.      National Institute on Aging.  (2014). Alcohol Use in Older People. Retrieved March 5, 2014 from: 

3.      NIH. (2012). Alcohol Use and Older Adults. Retrieved March 5, 2014 from:   

4.      PHAC. (2010). The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on The State of Public Health in Canada 2010.
         Retrieved March 5, 2014 from:

Additional Resources

1.      Seeking Solutions Project.  (2004) BEST PRACTICES:  alcohol and other substance use withdrawal
         Retrieved March 2014 from:

2.      Seeking Solutions Project.  (2004) BEST PRACTICES:  using harm reduction.  Retrieved March 2014 from: 

Issue/Condition - Problème / état: 
Resource Type - Type de Ressources: 
Author/Publisher - Auteur/Éditeur: 
Centre for Studies in Aging and Health
Date Published: