The number of older adults who drink to excess is not known, partly because primary health practitioners seldom screen for this problem. The signs of alcohol abuse are vague prior to late-stage liver failure and many of them are attributed to normal aging. Two types of alcohol dependence are commonly seen in older adults: type I is a late-onset alcohol dependence in which depression, chronic illness, or life changes such as retirement precipitate drinking, while type II is mainly genetic and reflects lifelong drinking that has not been previously identified by health professionals. Pharmacologic agents such as naltrexone and acamprosate have been shown in a number of clinical trials to be useful in care. A great many others are still in testing phases. Nonpharmacologic management is also effective, especially when teamed with drug therapy. Some of these are cognitive behavioural therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and counselling that the primary care physician can do in the office, also known as the brief intervention approach. There is much that can be done if alcohol dependence is recognized.
Key words: alcohol, aging, older adults, dependence, liver disease.