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.