For many of us, drinking alcohol can be an easy way to relax with family and friends after a long, stressful day. While many may say drinking is a young person’s game, alcohol use is common among seniors as well.
According to the National Council on Aging, nearly half of adults aged 65 or older report having consumed alcohol in the past year. Typically, this is done at a social event or party, as a way to enhance mood, as a way to cope with conditions like insomnia, or even as a means of receiving perceived positive health effects.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a drink now and then, it’s important to know your personal limits and to understand how your body responds to alcohol — especially if you are older.
How Drinking Affects Older Individuals
Although drinking problems are less common in older adults than younger people, alcohol can pose its own specific risks for seniors.
As we age, changes in our bodies’ hormonal balance and composition can make it much more difficult for older adults to metabolize alcohol. As a result, the effect of a mug of beer, a glass of wine or scotch, or even mixed drinks can be felt much more strongly by older drinkers.
“As we age, it takes longer for the body to break down alcohol,” said Brad Lander, an addiction medicine specialist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It stays in the system longer. Tolerance also decreases.”
In addition, it is especially important for older individuals to be fully aware of any additional risks that alcohol use may carry when combined with any medication you may be taking.
“[Alcohol use] can decrease the effectiveness of some medications and highly accelerate others, including over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, sleeping pills and others,” said Lander.
Alcohol abuse has also been known to cause problems with balance and reaction times, which increases the risk of accidents and falls. Furthermore, overindulgence of alcohol has been shown to worsen conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and liver disease. The risk of stroke can also increase.
According to Lander, prolonged excessive alcohol use can also lead to the increased development of dementia, depression, and impaired sexual functioning.
As is the case with anyone who overindulges, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can develop over time. However, the differences between safe drinking and alcohol abuse is different for everyone.
“The general rule of thumb is to take a close look and honestly assess if drinking is causing any life problems,” Lander said. “If it’s causing difficulties with your health, relationships, daily functioning or emotions, then it’s too much.”
Lowering Your Risks
The best way for seniors to avoid unnecessary risks to their overall health and the development of addiction while consuming alcohol is by limiting its use.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), those aged 65 and older who do not take medication and are in good health should limit their total alcohol consumption to no more than seven drinks per week. Additionally, those aged 65 and up should consume no more than three drinks throughout any given day.
Consuming food and other, non-alcoholic, hydrating beverages like water while at a party or gathering is another great way to ensure you aren’t overloading your system.
For those diagnosed with certain medical conditions (like Major Depression), or individuals who take prescribed medication to manage pain, the NIAAA recommends consuming even less, or abstaining completely.
The Final Word
As we age, alcohol use can remain a part of a healthy lifestyle. Enjoying a drink or two with friends and family at the occasional holiday celebration or get-together can even contribute to healthy aging by fostering social connection and a sense of enjoyment.
Nevertheless, unhealthy drinking habits can harm one’s overall health and well-being over time, especially if you are older.
To make the most out of alcohol use as you get older, stay within NIAAA guidelines and avoid using alcohol as a coping mechanism.
For more information on how alcohol use can affect older adults, check out even more resources from the NIAAA right here.