Young adults may overindulge in alcohol without considering the health consequences. But by middle age, most people are more aware that lifestyle choices influence health and longevity. Learn the latest thinking on drinking from a new study that correlates alcohol quantity with mature adults’ thought-processing abilities.
How Drinking Affects Your Brain
A new study of 7153 participants, 67 percent male, measured how daily alcohol consumption affects cognitive function in middle-aged adults over a 10-year period. It showed that all cognitive areas declined faster in men who drank 1.217 or more ounces of alcohol, or a little over two and a half standard drinks per day, compared to those consuming up to 0.672 ounces. Cognitive aging accelerated their memory decline 5.7 years. That means a 59-year-old heavy drinker’s memory would have deteriorated to that of a 65-year-old. Excess alcohol also added 2.4 years to their global cognitive decline with 1.5 extra years for executive function.
Women who drank 0.642 or more ounces of alcohol, or about one and half drinks, per day experienced a faster executive function decline of 2.4 years, compared to those consuming up to 0.334 ounces. Yet women who abstained from drinking had a five-year deterioration in both global cognitive and executive functions.
Participants took four initial tests, one for short-term verbal memory and three for executive function, at ages 44 to 69. They repeated them twice during the next 10 years. No clear association existed regarding beer or wine, so researchers attributed adverse effects to overall alcohol consumption instead of a specific beverage.
Study researchers hypothesized that cerebrovascular and cardiovascular pathways are responsible for negative effects that occur over time. They associated light to moderate alcohol consumption with better vascular outcomes. Their results also linked both abstinence and heavy drinking with higher risks of vascular disease and accelerated cognitive impairment. Study findings support previous research that heavy alcohol consumption has detrimental short- and long-term effects on the brain.
Researchers concluded that low-risk drinking probably isn’t harmful for cognitive outcomes. That’s fewer than two to three drinks a day for men and one to two for women. One drink consists of 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to one 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. The study team warned that these safe limits may be too high for older people because of the physiologic and metabolic changes related to aging.
Why Mature People Drink
Studies show that major life transitions like menopause, retirement and death of a spouse can make older people more vulnerable to alcohol use. So can isolation and loss of mobility. Taking on a new role such as caring for a sick relative or young grandchildren can be challenging. Some people turn to alcohol for comfort and to relieve stress or loneliness when their daily routine changes drastically.
Alcohol Impact Increases With Age
According to the U.S. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 28 percent of American adults drink amounts that increase their alcohol dependence and drinking problem risks. Many people are unaware that aging alters the way your body responds to alcohol. Your sensitivity to its effects may increase. You metabolize, or break down, alcohol more slowly than younger people, so alcohol stays in your system longer. This prevents your body from processing alcohol as well as you did when younger, which speeds up intoxication.
Your body’s water content drops with age. So as an older adult, your blood alcohol percentage is higher than a younger person’s when drinking the same quantity. Smaller amounts of alcohol can damage older organs. Aging also lowers your body’s alcohol tolerance, so you can develop alcohol problems without drinking more. At this life stage, the same amount of alcohol that had little effect previously can make you drunk now.
Intoxication slows down your reaction time, causes confusion, triggers loss of balance and coordination while increasing drowsiness. These conditions may be responsible for some of the falls, car accidents and other injuries that afflict older adults. Confusing the effects of alcohol consumption with senility, dementia, depression or other common aging symptoms can endanger your health and well-being.
Medications and Alcohol Don’t Mix
Like many older adults, you may be taking multiple medicines including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs and herbal remedies. Mixing them with alcohol is risky at every age, but older adults are especially susceptible to harm. Your slower metabolism makes both alcohol and drugs remain in your body longer, increasing your risk of overdose. Research shows the incidence of unhealthy interactions is growing in this mature group.
According to the National Institute on Aging, drinking alcohol can make certain medicines not work properly and others become dangerous or even deadly. Mixing alcohol with some medicines can cause nausea and vomiting. It may trigger headaches, disorientation, sleepiness and clumsiness, which can lead to accidents and injuries. Older people experience over half of the reported adverse drug reactions due to drinking that lead to hospitalization.
Drink to Your Health — in Moderation
Your optimal solution should be clear by now. As a low-risk drinker, you can maximize the number of years your mind continues to function well while protecting your overall health. Talk to your doctor about timing limited alcohol consumption with your prescribed dosing schedule. Then set your mind at ease by ordering your medications from a reliable Canadian pharmacy.