Should I cut back on alcohol as I age?

Alcohol and the Aging
This is a bad idea at any age.
This is a bad idea at any age.

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.

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