November 16, 2022

Alcohol and other drug use among older Australians

Older couple in love

As we age, alcohol and other drugs can have different effects on our body and put us at increased risk of injury and disease.1, 2

Here we look at alcohol, pharmaceutical and illicit drug use among older Australians and offer suggestions for reducing the associated risks.

Alcohol and aging

Australia’s drinking habits are changing.

Around 66% of the adult population drinks some type of alcohol each month – that’s down from 73% in 2006.3, 4

While younger Australians are drinking at less risky levels, there’s been a significant increase in risky drinking by older Australians.4, 5

Although young people are more likely to drink heavily on a single occasion, those aged over 50 drink more regularly than any other age group.1

The rate of alcohol-induced deaths is also highest for men and women aged 55-64.6

There’s no safe level of drinking. But to reduce your risk of alcohol-related harm, the national guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.

While many older Australians think their drinking habits are safe, they’re actually drinking more than the guidelines recommend.2, 5

And because they don’t recognise that their drinking is risky, they’re less likely to seek help or reduce their drinking.2, 5

Why is drinking more harmful for older people?

Drinking can be more harmful for older Australians because:

  • the body takes longer to break down alcohol as we age
  • the body can become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects
  • alcohol causes many chronic health conditions and can make some conditions worse, such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes and cancers)
  • many medications interact with alcohol
  • it increases risk of falls and injuries.2, 5, 7

If you choose to drink, you can reduce your risk by:

  • limiting your drinking to stay within the national guidelines
  • considering alcohol-free or low-alcohol alternatives
  • checking your medication labels to see if they can be taken with alcohol
  • talking to you doctor if you’re worried about your drinking and want help to cut down or stop drinking.

Read more about the benefits of cutting down alcohol the benefits of cutting down alcohol.

Pharmaceutical drug use and older Australians

Around 80% of Australians over the age of 65 have one or more chronic health condition.8 And many of these conditions are treated with multiple medicines.

In fact, 40% of Australians over the age of 70 take five or more medications each day.9

While many of these medications may be necessary and appropriate, there are risks associated with using multiple medications.

There are around 250,000 medication-related hospital admissions in Australia each year and thousands more emergency department visits.10 The majority of these are potentially preventable.10

In 2021, there was a 10% increase in drug-induced deaths for Australians over 65. These deaths were often associated with psychiatric medications and opioids.6

Risks of pharmaceutical drug use among older adults include:

  • you can become more sensitive to medication effects as you age
  • many medicines are addictive even if prescribed (especially medications for pain like opioids, or medications for anxiety and insomnia like benzodiazepines)
  • medications such as opioids can increase osteoporosis, endocrine (a system made up of glands that make hormones) dysfunction and sexual dysfunction
  • medications, including over-the-counter medicines, can interact with each other.1, 7, 9-11

The non-prescribed use of pharmaceutical medicines is another high-risk issue, and is relatively common among older Australians.1

Non-prescribed use includes doing things like:

  • taking medicines without a script
  • taking other people’s medications
  • using more than prescribed.

To reduce your risk of harm from pharmaceutical drugs:

  • take medicines according to the label
  • only take medications prescribed for you
  • understand why you’re taking each medication and how to take them correctly
  • check medicine labels for potential drug/alcohol interactions and side-effects
  • regularly review your medications with your doctor. 1, 7, 9-11

Illicit drug use and older people

People use illicit drugs for many different reasons. In Australia, increasing numbers of older people are using illicit drugs.1

But this doesn’t mean more older Australians are starting to use illicit drugs for the first time. It’s more likely that people who’ve previously used illicit drugs are continuing to do so as they age.1

The most common illicit drug used by older Australians is cannabis.1

Between 2016 and 2019 cannabis use increased significantly among older Australians, particularly in women in their 50s and 60s.1

Older adults are also more likely to use cannabis for medical purposes than younger people.1

Risks of illicit drug use among older adults include:

  • slower breakdown of substances in the body and increased sensitivity to drug effects
  • drug effects – like impairment, coordination and reaction time – can result in accidents such as falls, fire risks or car accidents
  • drugs may worsen health issues common in older adults such as mood disorders, memory issues and heart and lung problems.12

If you choose to use illicit drugs, you can reduce your risk of harm by:

  • avoiding mixing illicit drugs with other substances including alcohol and prescription medications
  • starting with a low dose, particularly if you haven’t used for a while, then wait an hour before having more
  • ensuring your equipment is clean if you inject drugs. You can also access sterile injecting equipment at needle and syringe programs across Australia.

Preventing AOD harms among older Australians

Older adults are at greater risk of experiencing alcohol and drug-related harms than younger adults.

And, this can be compounded by other factors that can occur at this life stage, such as:

  • loss of social and economic support
  • social isolation
  • life stressors like the loss or death of a spouse.13

To prevent the harms associated with AOD use among older Australians, we need:

  • better information targeting older adults on alcohol guidelines and age-related AOD risks
  • regular screening for risk factors for AOD-related problems
  • information to help older adults recognise and respond to alcohol and drug use issues
  • use of real-time prescription monitoring programs to alert health professionals to potential medication interactions and high-risk medication use.

Help and further information

You can also call the National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline to access free and confidential advice and to be connected to a treatment and support service in your local area: 1800 250 015.  

You can call the National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline to access free and confidential advice and to be connected to a treatment and support service in your local area: 1800 250 015.  

For further information about different drugs, including alcohol, prescription medications, cannabis and more, go to Drug Facts or email us at

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia2022 [12.10.2022].
  2. Bareham BK, Kaner E, Spencer LP, Hanratty B. Drinking in later life: a systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative studies exploring older people's perceptions and experiences.Age and ageing [Internet]. 2019 [12.10.2022]; 48(1):[134-46 pp.].
  3. Roy Morgan. Australians drink over 100 million glasses of alcohol in an average week 2020 [12.10.2022].
  4. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC). Don’t believe the hype, teens are drinking less than they used to 2015 [12.10.2022].
  5. Chapman J, Harrison N, Kostadinov V, Skinner N, Roche A. Older Australians' perceptions of alcohol-related harms and low-risk alcohol guidelines. Drug and alcohol review [Internet]. 2020 [12.10.2022]; 39(1):[44-54 pp.].
  6. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Causes of Death, Australia 2022 [27.10.2022].
  7. Page AT, Falster MO, Litchfield M, Pearson S-A, Etherton-Beer C. Polypharmacy among older Australians, 2006-2017: a population-based study. Medical Journal of Australia [Internet]. 2019 [12.10.2022]; 211(2):[71-5 pp.].
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.Older Australians 2021 [12.10.2022].
  9. Deakin University. Medication-related harm underdiagnosed among older Australians 2022 [12.10.2022].
  10. Lim R, Ellett LMK, Semple S, Roughead EE. The Extent of Medication-Related Hospital Admissions in Australia: A Review from 1988 to 2021. Drug safety [Internet]. 2022 [12.10.2022]; 45(3):[249-57 pp.].
  11. Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. 6.1 Polypharmacy, 75 years and over 2021 [12.10.2022].
  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Substance Use in Older Adults DrugFacts 2020 [12.10.2022].
  13. Nicholas R, Roche A, Lee N, Bright S, Walsh K. Preventing and reducing alcohol- and other drug-related harm among older people: A practical guide for health and welfare professionals. Adelaide: National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Flinders University; 2015 [12.10.2022].

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