Alcohol and drugs

Alcohol interaction with age

As you get older, you may notice that your body does not break down alcohol as efficiently as it used to. Older people become less tolerant of alcohol and it can have a faster effect on the brain. Older people who do not change their drinking habits to suit their increased alcohol sensitivity may put themselves at a higher risk of harm.

If you are on any medications, you will need to check if you can drink alcohol with them. Some medications interact with alcohol and can make the effects stronger or weaker, or can worsen the side effects of the medication. If the label on your medication says, ‘Not to be taken with alcohol’, this means you should not consume any alcohol for the whole time you are on that medicine. Some common medications that interact with alcohol include paracetamol, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, heart medicines, antidepressants, and antibiotics.

Alcohol can also cause new health problems or worsen existing ones. Some common health conditions affected by alcohol include high blood pressure, osteoporosis, incontinence, memory loss, some cancers, and mental health problems. You may also put yourself at a higher risk of falls when under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol problems

Older people can develop problems with alcohol for many reasons, including:

  • Continued or worsened habits from over time
  • To cope with bereavement, loneliness, isolation, or change
  • After the loss of a partner, routine, ability, or independence
  • Having more opportunities to socialise or having more free time
  • To relieve boredom, trauma, or pain

Because of the generalised lower alcohol tolerance in older people, the Health Promotion Agency recommends that women have up to two standard drinks a day, and men have up to three a day. They also recommend at least two alcohol-free days a week. For some people though, the impact of having two drinks can be equivalent to having four. Existing health problems, medications, your rate of drinking, age, body type or genetic makeup and other factors can all affect how much you can drink. Everyone is different. Check with your doctor, pharmacist or another health professional for advice specific to you.

Alcohol should not be consumed if you are operating a mobility scooter, driving a vehicle, operating machinery, doing anything risky or requiring skill, or if you are unwell, tired, or cold.

If you feel like your drinking is getting out of control and you want to cut down, the Health Promotion Agency recommends:

  • Setting yourself a limit for your intake and sticking to it
  • Only drinking alcohol with food
  • Alternating between non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks
  • If you use alcohol to sleep, try having a warm, caffeine-free drink instead of an alcoholic one
  • Ask friends and whānau to support you

The Health Promotion Agency offers more information on how alcohol can affect your health and you as an older person. Some useful resources include:

If you still feel like your drinking is a problem, talk to your doctor or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline for support.

If you are a heavy/daily drinker and want to make changes to your alcohol intake, talk to your GP. Attempting to stop your drinking without guidance from your doctor can cause serious withdrawals.

Drug problems

Both illegal and legal drugs can become an issue for people of all ages. For older people, prescription drug problems can be more likely as you take more medications for health issues. It is important to review your medications with your doctor frequently to ensure they are still necessary. If you want more information on reviewing your medications and what to discuss with your doctor, visit the Choosing Wisely website.

If you are taking illicit drugs, it is important to know when this is becoming an issue. You may want to ask for help if you are:

  • Using more than you want to, or for longer periods
  • Wanting to use less but have not been able to cut down
  • Using even if it is causing you problems, such as not being able to meet your obligations or commitments
  • Under the influence in dangerous situations such as while driving

If you are using drugs, the Know Your Stuff campaign is a volunteer-run organisation that tests substances at events and in some public testing clinics. This campaign is centred around better safety for those who decide to use substances.

Where to go for help

Websites of interest

Age Concern New Zealand would like to acknowledge Charmaine Diver and Lynne Glynn (Odyssey House) and Jemma Sergent (Master's student, Victoria University) for their input and advice on this webpage.