It is New Year’s Eve. You have one drink, then another, then a third. You used to be able to chug down 6 drinks without consequences. But lately, you’ve noticed that things are a bit different. Before dinner is over, you are wobbly; your speech slurs. Before the night is over, you are spread out on the floor.
You’ve only had 3 drinks. What happened?
Research shows alcohol has a much stronger effect in the aging population than in younger people. As you age, you absorb alcohol more readily. So, what used to be standard twentysomething fare is way too much for you now.
There are reasons for this change.
1.) Your body’s ratio of water to fat decreases as you age; so there’s less water to dilute the alcohol.
2.) Your aging body does not metabolize alcohol as easily as it did in your youth; your body produces less liver enzymes that help break down alcohol.
3.) If you are on prescription or over-the-counter medication, alcohol can compound the risk of collapse and falls; in fact, alcohol can produce an impaired effect with about half of the 100 drugs used frequently by seniors.
4.) The aging body has more body fat which does not absorb alcohol.
Changes in body chemistry that accompany the aging process can certainly be seen as one factor to explain the prevalence of alcoholism in seniors. The AMA estimates that about 3 million Americans over the age of 60 have a drinking problem. At least 10 percent of patients who go to an emergency room with alcohol related problems are over 60 years of age. As much as 20 percent of elderly patients (55 and older) in emergency rooms exhibit symptoms of alcoholism. And in many nursing homes, the problem of drinking is even more acute--as high as 49 percent in some studies.
In fact, researchers feel that these statistics are much lower than what they are in reality. Because alcohol problems in the senior population are usually mistaken for other conditions associated with the aging process, very often, alcohol abuse and alcoholism in the senior population may go undiagnosed and untreated.
Yet studies have also shown that moderate drinking confers benefits to the aging population. Alcohol consumed in moderate amounts can raise HDL levels of the so-called good cholesterol; it can also prevent blood clots, heart attacks and ischemic strokes. Studies have demonstrated that men who drink one alcoholic beverage a day have a significantly lower risk of death compared with those who rarely or never drink. A French study completed in 2002 also shows that moderate drinking can lower the incidence of dementia in the aging population.
Despite these benefits, the dangers of alcohol are considerable. The incidents of driving problems are high in the elderly population. Any potential benefit of alcohol is more than cancelled by the dangers in alcohol related diseases such as addictive alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure and depression. Alcohol has also been shown to produce deficits in intellectual and behavior functioning. It may accelerate normal aging or cause premature aging of the brain. Magnetic Resonance Imaging techniques have shown more extensive brain tissue loss in subjects with alcoholism than in those without alcoholism. And research also shows that shrinkage of the frontal lobe increases with the consumption of alcohol.