The Effect of Alcohol On Older People

Find out why, as people age, their mental and physical health changes, and this affects how they respond to any type of chemical in their body, including alcohol.

Yes, alcohol affects older people differently than it does younger people. As people age, their mental and physical health changes, and this affects how they respond to any type of chemical in their body, including alcohol.

Vision, Hearing, Reaction Time More Impaired for Older People

The first thing to be aware of is that vision, hearing and reaction time while sober may decline in older people. This means that they will have more difficulty with these issues after drinking a small amount of alcohol than younger people might. For example, an older person who drinks one glass of wine may not be competent to drive an automobile even though his blood alcohol level is below the legal limit. The alcohol might slow his reaction time even further, making him incapable of the sudden reactions that are sometimes needed to avoid an accident. Older people might also have difficulty with walking or following conversations after taking a small amount of alcohol because the alcohol interferes with their already limited ability to see, hear and react.

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Alcohol Intake Can Aggravate Older People’s Health Condition

Older people also need to think about alcohol’s effects on medical issues that younger people usually don’t deal with. For example, older people might have heart problems or ulcers, both of which can be made worse by drinking alcohol. Heart problems are a particular concern. Alcohol is a depressant, so it slows down the nervous system, including the heart. A person with a heart condition needs to worry about whether alcohol might slow her heart down dangerously, while a person who doesn’t have this physical problem doesn’t have to worry about it. Alcohol can also make people more aggressive or prone to anger, so excessive drinking among older people can aggravate heart conditions by adding to psychological stress. Older people who are undergoing cancer treatment should also be careful about their alcohol intake because the treatments often weaken the body’s immune system, and introducing toxins such as alcohol into their body can be harmful.

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Dangers of Mixing Alcohol and Medication for Older People

Some interactions between alcohol and medications are well known, and warning labels do an adequate job of informing people of specific dangers.

Many medical conditions that older people face require medication, so older people should be aware of the danger of mixing alcohol with medication. Pain medications are especially problematic-medications such as OxyContin can be fatal when combined with alcohol because both alcohol and the medication slow down the heart, and the combination of the two can cause the heart to stop beating altogether.  Even over-the-counter medication can be dangerous in combination with alcohol. For example, drinking while taking aspirin can lead to serious health problems, and drinking while on Tylenol can cause excessive liver damage. Cold and allergy medicines can also be dangerous because some of these medications already contain alcohol; in addition, drinking while on these medications will increase drowsiness. These problems might apply to younger people too, but since older people are more likely to be on both over-the-counter and prescription medication, they need to give special consideration to how medication may change their reactions to alcohol.

Older people also need to think about how alcohol affects them psychologically. As people age, they may turn to drinking because of the loss of significant others to death or fear of their own failing health. Loneliness and depression in older people often goes untreated because they don’t realize that’s what the problem is and think they are just reacting normally to grief associated with end-of-life issues. So older people should also limit their alcohol consumption to ensure that they aren’t using alcohol to numb themselves to painful feelings. In addition, mixing alcohol and antidepressants is as dangerous as mixing alcohol and pain medication, so older adults who are being treated for depression may want to abstain.

Finally, brain chemistry changes as we get older. This means that older people will feel buzzed after consuming less alcohol than younger people.

Abstention A Good Advice for Older People

These problems do not necessarily mean that older people can’t drink at all, although it may be a good idea to abstain if they have medical issues. However, older people should limit alcohol consumption to one drink per evening and discuss any unusual effects alcohol has on them with their doctors so that they do not overuse alcohol.