“Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” — Benjamin Franklin
Ben was a wise man who left us with many insights into the human condition in addition to his work in science and government. The record doesn’t indicate whether he noted any changes in the effects of alcohol as we grow older, but modern science has.
Research surveyed by The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests that sensitivity to alcohol’s health effects may increase with age. One reason is that older people may achieve a higher blood alcohol concentration than younger people after consuming an equal amount of alcohol. This results from an age-related decrease in the amount of body water in which to dilute the alcohol. Therefore older people are at increased risk for intoxication and adverse effects even if their volume of alcohol consumption does not increase from when they were younger.
Aging also results in the body producing fewer liver enzymes with which to metabolize or break down the alcohol once it enters the body. This, combined with the fact that older bodies have a greater percentage of body fat (which does not absorb alcohol), further supports the view that alcohol has a greater impact on older bodies than younger ones.
There are a number of other areas in which the use of alcohol may affect the aging body:
• Drinking more than two alcoholic beverages a day may contribute to higher blood pressure and a number of other problems.
• Alcohol can interact with a wide variety of drugs, enhancing the effect of some and reducing the effectiveness of others.
• Alcohol use may reduce our sense of balance and reaction times and increase the likelihood of falls and accidents. Note that a driver’s crash risk per mile increases starting at age 55, and exceeds that of a young, beginning driver by age 80. In addition, older drivers tend to be more seriously injured than younger drivers in crashes of equivalent magnitude.
• Drinking large amounts of alcohol can contribute to weaker bones (osteoporosis) and increase the likelihood that falls will result in broken bones. The incidence of hip fractures among seniors increases with alcohol consumption.
• Alcohol increases our body’s production of uric acid and interferes with the kidney’s efforts to eliminate it. This can aggravate gout.
• Stomach acid production is stimulated by alcohol which can be problematic for people who have acid reflux disease.
• If you are a member of the Viagra generation, alcohol may inhibit the blue pill’s effectiveness. As Shakespeare put it: “It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
How serious are these concerns? A UCLA study of people over the age of 60 concluded that over one third were at risk for excessive alcohol consumption or from the harmful effects of alcohol in combination with certain diseases or medications. People with higher incomes were at greater risk than those with lower incomes; people over age 80 had half the risk of those aged 60-64; people without a high school education were at a much higher risk than the better educated.
Is there any value in alcohol for an aging body (beyond the normal pleasures of consumption)? Yes. Many researchers believe that drinking alcohol in moderation can help lower cholesterol and reduce the likelihood of heart attacks and adult diabetes. It may even help reduce risk of dementia.
There is no universally agreed on definition of “moderate drinking”. The U.S. Government defines it as “one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men” with a “drink” consisting of one 12 ounce beer, 5 ounces of wines or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor. The NIAAA says for people over age 65 it consists of seven drinks a week and no more than three in a day for both men and women using the same definition of drink.
Of course the effects of alcohol in individuals can vary significantly depending on age, sex, size, health and any medications taken. Effects can also vary based on how fast the alcohol is consumed and whether it is taken with food.
Bottom-line, alcoholic beverages may, as Ben Franklin says, be evidence that God loves us, but as with everything else we have been given we must use it wisely and in particular, with respect to alcohol, recognize that as we age its effects get stronger.
“Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”. – Pope John XXIII
R. Kevin Price
© 2008-2010 R.K. Price