Alcohol And Seniors


Alcohol and Memory

In the Seniors' Health Study, we found that over one quarter of the clients in the outreach program had problems with their short term memory. Other research and clinical studies with seniors have identified the same problem. 


Why does memory become a problem?

As the human brain ages, it shrinks. Brain imaging techniques show chronic alcohol use leads to greater shrinkage in the cortex frontal lobes than we normally see as people age. The frontal lobe is where the higher intellectual functions occur.


The rate of the  frontal cortex shrinkage seems to correlate with approximately the amount of alcohol consumed (drink more, get more shrinkage).   Women may be more susceptible  than men to alcohol related brain shrinkage. According to  research reported in the  NIAAA 2000 Alcohol Alert   #47,  Imaging and Alcoholism: A Window on the Brain, there appears to be similar shrinkage in  deeper parts  of the  brain, including the brain structures  that are associated  with memory, and the cerebellum which helps  regulate coordination and balance.  (1)


People who have alcohol problems can run into problems with abstract reasoning. Part of the trouble seems to be storing information, rather than a specific inability to learn or remember. It’s like putting the correct information in a file drawer. Somehow, the file isn’t getting labelled properly. That makes it difficult to retrieve the information.(2)


Younger people (i.e. those under 40) who alcohol problems show substantial recovery of all cognitive functions if they stop drinking.(3) For older people who have long standing alcohol problems, the picture is somewhat different. They certainly perform better on cognitive tests, but there can still be difficulties in problem solving tasks years later. (4)


Depression has been shown to be associated with the ability to think and understand. A disproportionate percentage of older adults suffer from depression.


An older client who has an alcohol problem and significant short term memory losses often:


Implications for Getting and Receiving Help

The fact that many seniors who have alcohol problems also experience memory impairments can have important implications for how well standard alcohol treatment approaches work for seniors.

Many of the existing programs have a strong cognitive therapy base which may be inappropriate for many seniors’ needs—the approach simply won’t make sense to people who have memory problems. Unfortunately, the majority of alcohol treatment programs do not directly consider the impact that clients’ memory impairments have, and they do not try to use rehabilitation treatment strategies to remedy identified the cognitive problems.


Test Yourself/ Learning More

If you are looking for an interesting overview of memory and aging, check out Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care's interactive memory site:

It talks about types of memory and changes with normal aging; as well as about cognitive disorders.  It uses quizzes, audio vignettes, and a short audio-visual presentation on cognitive disorders (with transcript).





  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) , Alcohol Alert,  No. 47 April 2000. Imaging and Alcoholism: A Window on the Brain.
  2. Middaugh, Levin, Kee, et al., 1988;  Sorkin, Rudy, Hanlon, et al., 1990.
  3. M. Eckhardt, J.M. Stapleton, R.R. Rawlings, E.Z. Davis, & D.M. Grodin (Jan. 1995) "Neuropsychological functioning in detoxified alcoholics between 18 and 35 years of age." American Journal of Psychiatry 152 (1) 53-9. Also (4) Allen DN, Goldstein G, Seaton BE (March, 1997) "Cognitive rehabilitation of chronic alcohol abusers" Neuropsychology Review 7:1 21-39.
  4. M. Goldman (1995) "The Recovery of Functioning in Alcoholics : The Relationship to Treatment" Alcohol Health & Research World !9 (2) 148-154 at 149.


 Page last updated Wednesday March 02, 2005

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