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Alcohol and Aging

Although we often associate drinking too much with younger people (parties, bars, spring break vacations), alcohol abuse is a problem at any age. And while it’s true that younger people drink more than older people, alcohol abuse presents some age-specific issues for seniors. Here, from the SeniorHealth division of the National of Health (NIH), is an explanation of the damaging effects, and how you or a loved one can get help if it’s needed.

As people age, the SeniorHealth experts say, they may become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. That’s because with age, the body is slower to break down, or metabolize, alcohol. Additionally, the amount of water in the body goes down with age. That means that older adults will have a higher percentage of alcohol in their blood than younger people who have had the same amount. With senior citizens, effects such as slurred speech and lack of coordination can occur more readily than they do with younger people. That can lead to serious or fatal accidents such as falls or car crashes.

Drinking too much alcohol can cause health problems, the SeniorHealth experts say. Alcohol abuse can eventually damage the liver, the heart, and the brain. It can also up the risk of developing certain cancers and immune-system disorders, and damage muscles and bone. Additionally, it can make some chronic conditions worse, including diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, and memory problems. Also affected: mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Most older adults take prescription and over-the-counter medicine, but alcohol may alter their effect. Drinking alcohol, the NIH experts say, can cause certain medicines to not work properly or even become dangerous. (Some of these medicines include acetaminophen, cold and allergy medicines with antihistamines, antidepressants, sleep aids and remedies for anxiety.)

People who mix alcohol and some medications can become sleepy, dangerously confused or suffer other side effects including headaches, nausea and vomiting. And alcohol is likely to stay in the body for several hours after drinking, according to the NIH experts. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether you can drink while taking a particular medicine.

Generally, the SeniorHealth experts say, if you are healthy and over age 65 you shouldn’t have more than a total of seven drinks per week. More than that puts you at serious risk of alcohol problems. But those are only general guidelines. Depending on their health and how much of an effect alcohol has on them, some people should drink less than this, or not at all.

A “standard” size drink varies. A single drink is one 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer or ale or wine cooler; one 8- or 9-ounce serving of malt liquor; one five-ounce glass of one; and one 1.5 ounce shot glass of hard liquor. But, the NIH says, not all drinks come in standard sizes, and “light” beer can have almost as much alcohol as regular beer.

Not all drinks are served in standard sizes. For example, a mixed drink can contain as many as three or even more standard drinks, depending on the type of liquor and the recipe. Even popular brands of beer advertised as “light” may have almost as much alcohol as regular beer.

Although some studies have indicated the health benefits of drinking moderately, the NIH says, the link hasn’t been definitively proven, and it’s important to weigh the risks against any possible benefits.
If a loved one is drinking too much, the NIH says, clues may include depression, memory loss, anxiety, sleeping problems and inattention to cleanliness or personal appearance. If you’re worried about your own drinking, answering yes to any of these questions could signal a problem and a need to talk to your health care provider:

Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

Although the abuse of alcohol and the more serious alcohol dependence (in which a person is actually physically dependent on alcohol) is a tough problem, it can be solved.

The NIH advises anyone who is alcohol dependent, as well as those who have a less serious problem but can’t stay within healthy limits, to stop drinking altogether. Other people (though not if they’re alcohol dependent) can try to bring their drinking under control. Often, more than one try is needed.

But there are many resources, starting with your doctor. Patients may need more than one kind of treatment, therapy and support-group meetings with organizations such as AA. Support from loved ones is also valuable. Although not universally effective, prescription medications may also work for some people who are alcohol-dependent. Naltrexone (Depade®, ReVia®, Vivitrol®) is designed reduce craving for alcohol. Acamprosate (Campral®) helps manage withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and nausea. Another medicine, disulfiram (Antabuse®), makes a person feel sick after drinking alcohol.

According to the NIH experts, older people who have alcohol problems respond equally as well as younger people, but it’s preferable that older people be in a group with people of the same age.

Prescription medicines can help people who are alcohol dependent reduce their drinking, avoid going back to heavy drinking, and get sober. None of them works in every person. Naltrexone (Depade®, ReVia®, Vivitrol®) acts in the brain to reduce craving for alcohol. Acamprosate (Campral®) helps manage withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, nausea, and sweating that may lead to a drinking relapse. Another medicine, disulfiram (Antabuse®), makes a person feel sick after drinking alcohol.

To find help in your area, ask your doctor, local health department, or a local social service agency. You can also visit aa.org. to find an Alcoholics Anonymous support group in your area.

For more information on senior health issues, visit nihseniorhealth.gov.