Why We Should Revisit Our Drinking Habits as We Age

We have entered that time of year when darkness falls early, making for a long evening and the temptation to spend it by having one drink too many. The impending holidays will only increase the temptation as we visit with friends and family. It is important to understand why alcohol can act differently in older people than in younger people. An older person can develop problems with alcohol even though his or her drinking habits have not changed.

As we get older, it takes longer for the body to break down alcohol. There are two reasons why this is true. First, the blood supply to the liver reduces with age. The blood flow through the liver at age 60 is reduced by 40 to 50% compared to a 20 year old. When the blood supply to the liver is reduced, the liver’s metabolic and detoxification ability is also reduced.

Second, the number of liver cells decreases sharply after the age of 60. The liver progressively shrinks by 20-40% during the course of life, and there is an associated age-related decrease in liver volume, and therefore function.

Also, as people age there is a decrease in the amount of water in the body, so when older adults drink, there is less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol. This causes older adults to have a higher blood alcohol concentration than younger people after consuming an equal amount.

These are some reasons why older people can feel the effects of alcohol longer without increasing the amount they drink, resulting in greater risk of accidents like falling or getting in a car crash. New research at the University of Florida has revealed that just one serving of alcohol may be enough to impair the driving of those 55 and older.

Drinking too much alcohol over a long time can also affect health by leading to some kinds of cancer, immune system problems, and worsening health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and ulcers. Too much alcohol also causes certain medicines not to work properly and other medicines to become more dangerous or even deadly.

And if you value your brain health, read on.

Anyone who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol over a long period of time is at risk of succumbing to alcohol-related dementia. A male who drinks six or more alcoholic drinks a day is placing himself at a greater risk; the same goes for females who have four or more alcoholic drinks daily. Alcohol can damage the brain directly as a neurotoxin, or it can damage it indirectly by causing malnutrition, primarily a loss of thiamine (vitamin B1). Alcohol abuse is common in older persons, and alcohol-related dementia is under-diagnosed.

Even within these limits, you can have problems if you drink too quickly, have health conditions, or are over age 60. Older adults should have no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks per week.

In contrast, a new study shows that light consumption of alcohol is associated with better memory among people age 60 and older. Researchers found that light to moderate alcohol consumption was associated with better performance on tests of episodic memory.

The study, detailed in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, analyzed data such as drinking habits, medical histories and genetic disease risks from more than 660 patients who completed a battery of cognitive and memory tests. The researchers found that drinking just one or two alcoholic drinks per day was associated with a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s key to episodic memory — or the ability to recall details of specific events.

So if you are in good health and want to enjoy a drink or two, be wise about it. Don’t plan to drive anywhere or put yourself at risk for a fall or other accident. But go easy on your hard-working liver that has served you for so many years. You may need it.

By Sally Anderson