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alcohol and ageing

What are the risks of alcohol as you get older?

Alcohol creates risks for people of all ages, but as we age our bodies are less able to cope with its effects, and health concerns increase even more. This includes our risk of several cancers, the chances of breaking a bone after a minor fall, slower reaction times, and bad reactions to medications.

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Alcohol and ageing

As you get older, your body gets less able to cope with alcohol. That's partly because some of your muscle is replaced by fat. What's more, the amount of water in your body gradually goes down - and alcohol is diluted by the water in your bloodstream. That means even if you drink the same amount of alcohol as someone younger, you're likely to have a higher level of alcohol in your blood.

Your liver processes alcohol, and too much alcohol can cause damage to your liver. As you age, the blood flow to your liver is decreased. That means alcohol stays in your liver for longer and can cause more harm.

Medicine side-effects and complications

Your liver also processes a whole host of medicines, which can interact with alcohol. This could mean you get more side effects, For example, painkillers, some antihistamines and some antidepressant medicines can make you feel drowsy, and this is often made worse by alcohol.

It could put you at higher risk of complications. Drinking alcohol with some diabetes medicines increases your chance of dangerous low blood sugar, and taking it with the blood-thinner warfarin could increase your risk of bleeding.

Dizziness and falls

If your blood pressure is too high, it greatly increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. That's why it's so important to get your blood pressure checked regularly as you get older, and to take medication to control it if needed.

But with age, your body's ability to keep your blood pressure high enough if you get dehydrated, or stand up too quickly, begins to slow down. That means you may be prone to funny turns - feeling lightheaded if you stand up too fast or get up out of bed. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of these funny turns, and this dizziness makes you more prone to falls.

Avoiding falls depends on a combination of reflexes, hearing, coordination, eyesight and muscle strength. Even a small amount of alcohol can slow down your reflexes and reaction time further. This is another reason alcohol makes you more likely to have a fall as you get older. And if you do slip, you're more likely to break a bone even with a minor tumble, because your bones tend to become thinner with age.

Alcohol also increases the risk of osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. This is a very common problem in older people, especially women - 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men over 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis.

Alcohol, age, and cancer risk

In the longer term, drinking alcohol increases your risk of several cancers. For some, such as breast cancer, there's no lower level where drinking is safe. A unit of alcohol is around half a pint of normal strength beer or a single pub measure of spirits - a standard glass of wine has about 2 and one half units. And even 1 unit of alcohol a day increases your risk of breast cancer by 7-11%.

The risks of cancer increase for men, too, even at lower levels of drinking. That's why guidelines now recommend that both men and women should stick to no more than 14 units a week, spread over several days and with at least a couple of alcohol-free days every week.

How to drink less as you get older

Research shows that older people may turn to alcohol as a result of changes in their circumstances1. This could be because they retired and don't have as much to occupy their time, because they're less mobile and can't get out to socialise as much, or because they're mourning the loss of a loved one.

Of course, many older people have highly fulfilling, healthy lives. But staying safe and well takes a few more precautions as time passes. Keeping your alcohol intake moderate as you get older is a really sensible start to living a longer, healthier life with no nasty surprises.

These tips can help you enjoy alcohol in moderation:

  • Limit the times you drink - for instance, only drinking alcohol with meals means you'll absorb it more slowly, keeping blood alcohol levels lower.

  • Alternate soft and alcoholic drinks when you go out.

  • Have an extra one or two alcohol-free days each week.

  • Devise some mocktails - alcohol-free cocktails which will feel like you're having a treat, without the risk of a hangover.

It’s also so important to try and keep your mind and body as active as you can as you get older. You don't need to train for a marathon - a regular gentle walk can help you reconnect with nature, and even better if you go with a friend.

  1. NIH: Facts About Ageing and Alcohol

With thanks to My Weekly magazine, where this article was originally published.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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