How does social drinking become problematic as we age?

sad, older woman sitting at bar with a drinkYou may not realize it, but as we age, we become more vulnerable to developing an alcohol use disorder, more commonly known as alcoholism.
And, even if you don’t develop an alcohol use disorder, it’s important to know that your body processes alcohol less efficiently the older you get.
In addition, the reasons why people are drinking may change as they grow older. Chances are, younger and middle-aged people are more likely to drink in social gatherings or celebrating with family and friends, while seniors may drink more to seek relief from the boredom, loneliness and grief that are common with aging.
Interestingly, among seniors, women are more likely than men to develop alcoholism.
What are the health risks of alcoholism in older people?
Alcohol irritates tissues throughout the body, which means that anywhere blood goes can be affected.
Even after someone stops drinking, the alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, resulting in impaired judgment and coordination for hours, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
As we age, it takes longer for the body to break down alcohol. It stays in the system longer. Tolerance also decreases.
Excessive drinking can compromise your immune system and can lead to some forms of cancer.
It also can decrease the effectiveness of some medications and highly accelerate others, including over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, sleeping pills and others.
Other health risks with aging and alcoholism include: 
  • Creating problems with balance and reaction times results in higher frequency of accidents, including falls.
  • Worsening some health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis and liver problems. 
  • Developing early-onset dementia.
  • Depression and suicide.
  • Decreased sexual functioning.

What’s the best way to encourage someone to moderate their drinking?

If someone hasn’t developed an alcohol use disorder, simply sharing your concerns with them may be enough. This can be even more effective coming from a doctor.

If drinking has crossed over into a use disorder, more impactful measures will need to be taken, such as an intervention or behavioral contract (“If you do this… I will do this”).

How can a person tell if they're drinking too much?

The difference between safe, moderate and heavy drinking is a personal matter and different for everyone.

But the general rule of thumb is to take a close look and honestly assess if drinking is causing any life problems. If it’s causing difficulties with your health, relationships, daily functioning or emotions, then it’s too much.

According to the NIAAA, women are considered at low-risk for developing an alcohol-use disorder if they consume no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week. For men, it’s defined as no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week.

For the average senior, those suggested limits are no more than seven drinks in a week, and no more than three drinks in one day.

NIAAA research shows that only about two in 100 people who drink within these limits have an alcohol use disorder.

Who should avoid alcohol completely?

Anyone who plans to drive a vehicle or operate machinery should refrain from drinking alcohol.

Anyone taking medications that interact with alcohol or have a medical condition that alcohol can aggravate.

Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

How can you curb your alcohol consumption?

A lot of drinking is “thoughtless,” so simply ask yourself, “Do I really want a (or another) drink?”

At social gatherings, drink some nonalcoholic (water, juices and sparkling sodas) as well as alcoholic beverages.

Don’t forget to eat.  Food can slow the absorption of alcohol and reduce the peak level of alcohol in the body. It can also minimize stomach irritation and gastrointestinal distress the following day.

Stand up to peer pressure to drink. Remember, you don’t have to drink. 

Brad Lander is a clinical psychologist and addiction medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Talbot Hall and Ohio State’s College of Medicine.