What to Know About Alcohol if You're Over the Age of 65

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Think an occasional glass of wine is harmless? You might want to think again.

In the United States, alcohol use in older adults is on the rise, according to a report published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in July 2019. The problem is, as people age, they can become less tolerant to the effects of alcohol, which puts them at risk for falls and other accidents.

Here are a few things you should keep in mind if you drink alcohol.

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1. You might not be able to drink as much as you used to. "Aging, in general, can lower the body's tolerance to alcohol," says Antoine Douaihy, MD, the senior academic director of UPMC Addiction Medical Services. "Older adults experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger."

The reason: As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass and gain fat, he says. Because alcohol is absorbed by muscle much more quickly than it is by fat, it stays in the bloodstreams of older adults for longer periods of time.

Older women, too, are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than older men, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in part because their bodies contain less water. Because alcohol mixes with water in the body, they typically have more concentrated amounts of alcohol in them.

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2. Alcohol could cause memory or coordination problems. Because alcohol may be lingering in your system for longer periods of time, you may be more likely to experience a lapse in judgement or balance. And sometimes, the effects of having too much to drink — like forgetfulness or coordination problems — can be mistaken as an inevitable part of growing older, he says.

The National Institute of Aging points out that alcohol is a factor in 30 percent of suicides, 40 percent of crashes and burns, and 60 percent of falls. Falls can also be problematic for older adults, who typically have thinner bones that their younger counterparts. Specifically, the likelihood of suffering a hip fracture in your later years increases with alcohol use, says the National Institute of Aging.

3. Alcohol could interfere with your medications. Mixing alcohol and meds could cause a dangerous interaction—even if they aren't taken at the same time.

In particular, painkillers, cough medicine, and allergy meds contain multiple ingredients that can negatively interact with alcohol, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (In fact, certain meds, like cough syrup and laxatives actually contain alcohol in them.)

Some of the complications that can occur include internal bleeding, heart problems, and trouble breathing.

4. Drinking even a little bit of alcohol can harm your health. Even if you don't drink very much, alcohol can still cause worsen certain health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and mood disorders, according to the National Institute on Aging. Plus, it could also speed up memory loss and aggravate ulcers.

"For some people, even one or two drinks a day might be potentially problematic," Douaihy says.

If you suspect that you might be overusing alcohol or have an alcohol use disorder, talk to your doctor. For information about alcohol addiction—for either you or a loved one—visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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1-833-942-1968 (TTY: 711)

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