Seniors and Alcohol—What's the Real Story?

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Mental and Emotional Health, Medications, Safety

St. Patrick's Day is one of our "drinking holidays," right up there with New Year's Eve and Cinco de Mayo. Experts say enjoying a beer might offer some health benefits to this senior reveler—but then again, maybe not.

Senior woman drinking beer

If you're confused about the connection between healthy aging and alcohol consumption, there's a good reason for that! A number of recent studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption can lower the rate of heart disease, dementia and diabetes. And in February 2018, the topic was all over the news when researchers from the University of California Irvine (UCI) announced that seniors who drink a modest amount of alcohol tend to live longer. Study author Dr. Claudia Kawas has been studying "super agers" for years, and she noted that drinking alcohol seemed to be a factor in their longevity. (Drinking coffee, having a hobby, and maintaining a healthy weight also helped, but those factors obviously didn't make for as notable a headline.)

These studies always get a lot of media attention because we enjoy hearing that something we consider indulgent might also be of benefit. However, many other studies question the benefits of alcohol consumption. Just as the UCI study was making the news, researchers from Canada's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health announced that alcohol abuse is the top lifestyle factor linked to dementia. What about heart health? While some studies show alcohol might be good for the heart, a 2017 study from the University of California, San Francisco said that consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol raises the risk of a number of heart diseases, just as much as smoking and high blood pressure! Other research confirms that even light drinking is bad for the liver and raises the risk of several types of cancer.

So … should we remove those wine glasses from the dinner table, or not?

Bottom line, our understanding of the link between alcohol and healthy aging is still a work in progress. For one thing, there could be a murky cause-and-effect in some of the pro-alcohol studies. Some experts suggest that people who are healthy are more likely to enjoy a drink now and again ... it's their health that leads to enjoying that glass of wine, rather than the other way around. Others disagree, pointing to certain substances in alcohol that could be beneficial.

But there's one thing everyone agrees on: The health benefits go out the window if we drink too much. Consuming more than the recommended amount of beer, wine or spirits negates any benefits. For example, the studies mentioned above show benefits to the brain from light drinking—yet, said professor Adam Woods, Ph.D., of the University of Florida College of Medicine, "As people get older, decline of memory is one of their greatest complaints. We found that in those who drink heavily, as they age, they have a greater decline in thinking and memory than their non-drinking or moderate-drinking counterparts." The research team noted that heavy drinkers have difficulty "learning new technology, remembering steps to a recipe, taking a medication on a prescribed schedule, and even driving."

What is "moderate drinking"? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), low-risk drinking means no more than four alcoholic drinks in a single day and 14 in a week for men, and up to three drinks in a day and no more than seven per week for women.

What about senior drinkers?

There are good reasons to reevaluate alcohol consumption as we grow older:

  • The safe amount of alcohol for older adults may be less … or none. With age, our bodies process alcohol less efficiently. We feel the effects sooner, and longer.
  • Many of the medications seniors take can be dangerous and even deadly when combined with alcohol. These include drugs they take for pain, allergies, sleep problems, anxiety and other common health conditions.
  • Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, weaken the immune system, and damage the brain, heart, bones, digestive system and hearing.
  • Alcohol can lead to poor quality sleep, which may be one of the mechanisms by which it damages the brain.
  • Drinking even a small amount of alcohol raises our risk of falls and car crashes.
  • Alcohol abuse damages relationships; heavy drinking may gradually take the place of more beneficial activities that we enjoy.

So, should seniors drink?

Despite the warnings about the dangers of alcohol—and perhaps because of the studies that tout its benefits—a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry reported a sharp upswing in the number of older adults who drink these days. If they're drinking in moderation, it might not harm their health.

However, Cornell University researchers say that more than three million people older than 50 suffer from alcohol abuse, a number that also is growing steadily. Lonely seniors and those dealing with losses may turn to alcohol … which is not a good way to improve your social life if you go beyond, say, enjoying a glass of wine with dinner or a wine-tasting party. The Cornell team also noted that seniors often increase their drinking in response to the life changes brought about by retirement.

For most of us, it's a matter of moderation—and above all, a question to discuss with our doctor, who can help us weigh the pros and cons, given our individual health, medications and history, and help us avoid slipping from light drinking into abuse.

If you suspect you are drinking too much, and you're having trouble cutting back or abstaining, talk to your doctor. Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of.

If you think a senior loved one is drinking too much, talk to a professional who is experienced with working with older adults to help you open a conversation with your loved one. Check out alcohol awareness tools from the NIAAA:

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2018