Is it time to give up drinking? How alcohol affects your health

A cold beer on a hot afternoon, a glass of wine with dinner, a brandy or liqueur to cap off the evening... alcohol is one of life's pleasures for many people. It is estimated that 80% of Canadians consume alcohol, and of those who drink, nearly six million are considered heavy drinkers. This puts older adults at risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and liver disease.


What constitutes heavy drinking?

For females, this translates into drinking four or more alcoholic beverages during one event, at least once a month, while for males, that number is five or more drinks. Heavy drinking can lead to the development of alcohol use disorder, a behavioural condition that gives rise to cognitive, emotional, and physical issues that increase disability and decrease lifespan.


How to identify alcohol abuse?

Common signs of alcohol abuse in older adults include:

  • loss of co-ordination, falls and slurred speech;

  • problems sleeping;

  • poor personal care (for example, not bathing, not eating or not eating well, not taking care of health problems);

  • irritability, depression or confusion;

  • stomach problems, lack of desire to eat;

  • making excuses or making up stories to cover up drinking problems;

  • tension in relationships, losing touch with friends or family;

  • lack of interest in usual activities, desire to stay alone a lot of the time; and

  • signs of alcohol withdrawal (for example, racing pulse, tremors and agitation).


Seeking support

A diverse collection of treatment options, such as medications, psychological therapies, and recovery support programs, exist to help those struggling with alcohol misuse and dependence achieve and maintain abstinence. Recovery support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and similar Twelve Step Facilitation (TSF) interventions are appealing because they are widely available and often offered at little to no cost. Managed alcohol programs are another treatment option for certain populations. 


If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, consider exploring an AA support group in your community or consulting with a health care provider for guidance about available recovery support programs. Being aware of the association between alcohol and serious diseases, including cancer, may provide additional motivation to seek assistance, reduce your alcohol intake or cut out alcohol and enjoy a longer, healthier life.

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DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.