Most people know that alcohol can be bad for young people because their brains are not fully developed. But what about people who have been around for a while? How does alcohol affect the fully developed, well-seasoned minds and bodies of seniors, 75 per cent of whom say they sometimes enjoy a drink or two when socializing, relaxing or celebrating?
Drinking in your 30s and 40s is not the same as drinking in your 60s, 70s and beyond. This is because as we get older, our bodies process alcohol more slowly, and we become more sensitive to its effects. With advancing age there is a tendency to lose lean body mass, resulting in less water in the body to dilute the alcohol. An age-related decline in the production of an enzyme which helps break down alcohol also places an extra burden on the liver, the major organ involved in processing alcohol.
Many health problems that may be related to aging can be aggravated by consuming more than a safe amount of alcohol. These include high blood pressure, memory loss, depression, anxiety, diabetes, digestive problems, loss of appetite, osteoporosis and strokes.
Drinking alcohol also distorts vision and hearing and reduces psychomotor skills. It affects alertness, judgment, memory and reaction times. And it interferes with coordination, mobility and balance, which may result in an unexpected fall and serious injury.
Almost half of all the prescription drugs taken by older people interact with alcohol. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol can either reduce or intensify the effect of many over-the-counter drugs or prescribed medications.
Does this mean seniors really shouldn’t drink alcohol? Not at all. Seniors can continue to enjoy alcohol but need to be aware of how it affects them and monitor their use carefully.
The new Canadian Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend that women drink no more than 10 drinks a week and men no more than 15, spread out over a span of days. Men should avoid having more than four drinks on any single occasion, and women no more than three.
The Centre for Addictions Research of BC at the University of Victoria recommends that seniors cut back a little further on the national guidelines and check with a doctor or a pharmacist before using alcohol when taking medication. See www.carbc.ca/HelpingCommunities/ToolsResources/LowRiskAlcoholDrinkingGuidelines.aspx for more details.
Dan Reist is the assistant director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria.