Should I Cut Back on Alcohol as I Age?

Can I see some ID?
Can I see some ID?
© iStockphoto.com/khaig12

Teenagers in the United States spend a lot of time wishing their country was more like Germany or Guatemala or Ghana. In most other countries, the legal drinking age is 16 or 18, but U.S. teenagers must wait for their 21st birthday to roll around before they can lawfully purchase alcoholic beverages. Once we hit our country's designated requirements, the concept of age and alcohol is likely to be an issue of taste: Is this wine properly aged? How long was our whiskey left to mature in its cask? The question of whether people can be too old to drink, just as they were once too young to, rarely comes up.

Why should it? Media outlets routinely run features that proclaim how beneficial a glass of alcohol can be. Studies have shown that alcohol can lower the risk of heart attacks and heart failure, and that's any alcohol, not just the headline-hogging red wine [source: Bakalar]. Wine is the drink of choice, however, for slowing the onset of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia, as beer might increase the risk of both conditions [source: Brody]. A drink a day seems to improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis and moderate drinking may also help prevent strokes [sources: Dawson, American Academy of Neurology].

It's probably best to take these studies with a grain of salt, and they shouldn't encourage anyone with a history of alcohol problems to tip one back. After all, most of these studies only point out associations, and researchers have little to no idea why a glass of alcohol might have the healthful results that it does. But the real key to remember is that these benefits come with moderate alcohol use, along the lines of one to two drinks a day. Any more than that, and you're likely increasing your risk for the very conditions you might be trying to prevent. And experts caution that not everyone should take these studies as an excuse to have a cocktail. When it comes to aging populations, that one drink a day should be carefully considered. Find out why on the next page.

Alcohol and the Aging

This is a bad idea at any age.
This is a bad idea at any age.
© iStockphoto.com/PearlBerling

If both a young person and an old person drank the exact same amount of alcohol, the blood alcohol level of the older person would be about 30 to 40 percent higher [source: Brody]. That's because our aging bodies surrender their lean body mass and take on body fat. In turn, this decreases the amount of water in our body. Alcohol is soluble in water, not in fat, which means that even small amounts of alcohol have a strong effect on the body. Even if an elderly person is drinking no more than he or she drank throughout his or her life, the alcohol affects the person more intensely than it ever did before.

Because elderly people may think that they know how to handle their alcohol, they may not realize how impaired they become after just one drink. A 2009 study conducted at the University of Florida revealed that healthy people over the age of 50 performed worse on simple puzzles than those who didn't drink; the puzzles also took the imbibing group about five seconds longer to complete [source: University of Florida]. And while you may think that alcohol slows everyone down, there was a control group of young people who also consumed alcohol -- and they completed the puzzles quicker than the elderly drinkers, too.

Alcohol can increase the risk of falls in the home as well as car accidents. And while moderate alcohol use can help prevent a host of conditions, it can exacerbate things like high blood pressure and ulcers. Additionally, drinking has been linked with increased risk for cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx and liver in both men and women; it may increase the risk of breast cancer in women as well [source: Thun et al.].

It's estimated that people over 65 take at least two medications each day [source: National Institute on Aging]. Alcohol can negate the effects of these medications, exacerbate the side effects, and in some cases, even make them toxic to the system. However, studies indicate that doctors often don't ask older patients about their alcohol use, which means that many adults may receive their medications with little warning about the dangers of drinking.

And because doctors don't ask about alcohol use, many researchers worry that alcohol abuse by the elderly is a hidden problem. Since the elderly often live alone, they may not have someone to keep an eye out for potential problems. Complicating the matter, it's easy to confuse the symptoms of alcohol abuse, such as poor short-term memory and tremors, with the symptoms of other conditions, like dementia or Parkinson's.

We don't mean to scare all aging people off their evening glass of wine -- just remember that before imbibing, it's important to consider a person's overall health situation.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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