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Alcohol and aging

Last updated: July 2024

Research shows that drinking alcohol can contribute to chronic diseases, including cancer and some heart conditions.

Drinking can also make some health problems worse, for example:

  • High blood pressure
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders, like depression and anxiety
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke

Women need to be especially careful about consuming alcohol, because they tend to be more at risk of alcohol-related health problems, including liver damage. Women produce less of the alcohol-digesting enzyme, have less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol and generally tend to weigh less than men.

Chronic heavy use, as well as occasional excessive use of alcohol, can harm your health. If you have been drinking heavily all your life, you are at risk for increased blood pressure, damage to the lining of your stomach, inflammation or scarring of the liver, and heart damage. Heavy drinking has also been linked to several cancers, including esophagus, breast, liver and colon cancer.

Even cutting back a little can reduce your risk of many illnesses and health problems. If you think you might benefit from drinking less, you can keep an alcohol diary for two weeks to keep track of how much alcohol you actually consume.

Effects of alcohol on aging bodies

As we get older, our bodies process alcohol more slowly and we become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. This is because alcohol is absorbed and distributed through the body’s total water content.

With age we tend to lose lean body mass, resulting in more body fat and less water in the body to dilute alcohol. The same amount of alcohol will produce a higher blood alcohol content, and greater impairment in an older person, than it does in a younger adult of the same weight.

As we age, we also produce less of a critical enzyme that breaks down alcohol which can elevate blood alcohol levels in older adults.

Alcohol and medication

Adverse reactions can occur when mixing alcohol with medication. Many prescription medications and over the counter drugs can interact negatively with even small amounts of alcohol and put you at risk of serious heath problems. For example, drinking when you’re taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) can cause liver damage.

Alcohol can also reduce or neutralize the effectiveness of both over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Some drugs also intensify the sedative effects of alcohol and may make you feel unusually drowsy or uncoordinated after only one or two drinks, putting you at increased risk of falls or injury. If you’re on medication and think you might drink alcohol, talk to your doctor or pharmacist first.

Alcohol and falls

Age-related physical changes can make getting around more challenging. Drinking alcohol can affect your judgement and balance and increases your risk of falling. Falls are the sixth leading cause of death for older British Columbians.

Alcohol and driving

Research shows that alcohol levels generally considered safe for driving are not accurate for people over 60.

Driving demands excellent vision and fast reaction times. Drinking alcohol decreases brain activity, distorts vision and hearing, and affects your alertness, judgement, coordination, memory and reaction times. Alcohol use increases your risk of being involved in a traffic incident. Older adults experience greater levels of impairment than younger people from equivalent amounts of alcohol because of changes in the way alcohol is processed as you age.

Dealing with life changes

Loss – including the loss of a loved one, a job, good health, mobility, or the family home – can cause strong emotions that may lead to increased alcohol use as a way of coping. Increased alcohol consumption may also result from boredom, the loss of structure and identity due to retirement, long stretches of leisure time, a lack of social connections, and feelings of loneliness, depression, or inadequacy. Be mindful of your alcohol use during life changes and pay attention to any increases in your consumption. Look for other ways of coping or dealing with life changes such as joining a community organization or finding new ways of connecting to others; trying new activities; or reaching out to community mental health supports for help during challenging times.

Warning signs

If you notice any of the following warning signs, you or someone you know may have reason to be concerned. Reach out to a care provider or find services for support:

  • Sudden physical or mental health changes
  • Confusion, memory loss, or drowsiness
  • Depression, argumentative behaviour, and resistance to help
  • Frequent loss of balance
  • Unexplained falls and bruises
  • Drinking quickly, or more often
  • Neglecting oneself or one’s home
  • Medications not working properly
  • Withdrawing from friends or family
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feelings of guilt or regret because of drinking

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