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.

Alcohol tends to affect older people differently than it affects younger people. We experience multiple mental and physical changes as we grow older. These biological changes affect how we respond to foreign chemicals, like alcohol, in our bodies.1

Alcohol can be dangerous or even deadly for older people. Drinking can cause significant health issues in older adults, and moderate-to-heavy drinking habits may also lead to a decreased ability to perform simple tasks.1

How Does Alcohol Affect Older People?

Aging can lower someone’s ability to metabolize alcohol, thus lowering their tolerance for this drug.1

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant drug that can alter vision, reduce hearing, impair judgment, inhibit the ability to balance and delay reaction time in older adults. Although young people experience these repercussions, their tolerance for the drug tends to be much higher.1,2

For example, an older person who drinks one glass of wine may not be competent to drive a car or operate machinery even though their blood alcohol level is below the legal threshold. Alcohol might slow this person’s reaction time even further, making them incapable of the quick reflexes needed to avoid a car accident.

Meanwhile, a younger individual would typically have little trouble driving with a blood-alcohol level below the legal limit.

Older people might have difficulty walking or following conversations after drinking a small amount of alcohol, as well, because it leads to a compromised ability to see, hear, and react.

Older individuals risk falling more easily while drinking alcohol, considering that it affects balance. These adverse effects may also last for extended periods after the older person is sober.1

Free and low-cost alcoholism treatment is available.

Alcohol and Co-Occurring Health Conditions

Drinking alcohol can also aggravate co-occurring health conditions in older adults. Older people have a higher tendency for heart problems and stomach problems, such as ulcers, and drinking can make these worse.

As mentioned, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows down our nervous system. Subsequently, it can slow down the body’s primary vital organs. A person with a heart condition needs to consider the risks of drinking alcohol. Too much alcohol might slow their heart to a dangerous extent.

Older adults may suffer from other health conditions exacerbated by alcohol, including:3

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Osteoporosis
  • Mood disorders
  • Other mental health disorders

Excessive drinking in the older population can contribute to additional psychological stress, making them prone to anger and mental health conditions. Unfortunately, loneliness is common in the senior community. Older people may turn to drinking to help them feel better after a significant loss or self-medicate for underlying depression.

Older people who are undergoing cancer treatment should also be careful with managing their alcohol intake. Cancer treatments can weaken the body’s immune system. Introducing the body to toxins, such as alcohol, can result in more immune system deterioration.

Does Alcohol Cause Aging?

Alcohol and aging can go hand-in-hand. Besides the fact that alcohol can agitate pre-existing health conditions, it can also contribute to experiencing the effects of aging more rapidly.

Our skin is our largest organ, and researchers recently found clear connections between alcohol and facial aging. Someone with an alcohol use disorder will typically see their face wrinkle quicker than someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.4

Chronic heavy drinking is also generally associated with dehydration and increased inflammation in the body. Inflammation is known to lead to several health issues and diseases, like an increased likelihood of heart disease and cancer.4

Where someone normally wouldn’t develop a condition such as Osteoporosis or arthritis until later in their lives, heavy drinking could lead to earlier onset of their disease.3

Is It Bad to Drink Every Night?

The average recommended amount of alcohol that a person should drink per day is one drink for women and up to two drinks for men. One standard drink counts as 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine, and 12 ounces of beer.5

However, due to the consequences mentioned above, it may be best to refrain from drinking every day if you are over 65. Older people are at a higher risk for negative health consequences from drinking.

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.

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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What Are the Dangers of Mixing Alcohol with Medication?

Many medical conditions that older people face require medication, so it’s crucial to remain aware of the dangers of mixing alcohol with medication. Although many medicines provide clear information on whether alcohol is a wise choice while on the drug, others are less explicit. Either way, there are a few particular classes of drugs that, when taken, should cause an older person to approach alcohol with extra caution.

Prescription pain medications are especially problematic for any drinker. Drugs such as OxyContin can be fatal when combined with alcohol. A combination of the two can cause the heart to stop beating altogether. The risks of mixing these drugs only compound for elderly people.6

Even over-the-counter medications can be dangerous when combined with alcohol. For example, drinking while taking aspirin can lead to serious health problems, like increased risk of stomach bleeding. Drinking while on Tylenol can cause excessive liver damage.6

Cold and allergy medicines can also be dangerous because some of these medications already contain alcohol. Drinking while on these medications will increase drowsiness. These problems might apply to younger people too, but older people are more likely to be on over-the-counter and prescription medication. Therefore, they must give special consideration to how medication may change their reactions to alcohol.7

An aging brain is especially sensitive to the effects of alcohol, so those over 65 also need to think about how alcohol influences 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. Depression can go untreated in older people because they don’t realize that this disease may be causing their increased stress. Instead, they believe they are just reacting normally to grief associated with end-of-life issues.

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.

Abstinence

Despite the potentially negative effects of drinking over the age of 65, it doesn’t necessarily mean that older people can’t drink at all. However, it may be a good idea to abstain from drinking if they have certain medical issues or are on particular medications. If you are concerned about your alcohol intake, be sure to contact your doctor.

Sources
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[1] National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (2020). Older Adults.

[2] BMC Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders (2007). The acute effects of alcohol on auditory thresholds.

[3] National Institute on Aging (2017). Facts About Aging and Alcohol.

[4] The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology (2019). Impact of Smoking and Alcohol Use on Facial Aging in Women: Results of a Large Multinational, Multiracial, Cross-sectional Survey.

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). Alcohol and Public Health: FAQ.

[6] American Society of Anesthesiologists (2017). Mixing Opioids and Alcohol May Increase Likelihood of Dangerous Respiratory Complication, Especially in the Elderly, Study Finds.

[7] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2014). Mixing Alcohol with Medicines.