George Koob, PhD, director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Bethesda, Maryland.
Now that I’m in my late 60s, I notice I get a “buzz” on less alcohol than before—and it lasts longer. Is this just an annoyance—or is it bad for my health? How much is safe for older people to drink?
How alcohol affects you does change greatly as you age. There are several reasons. First, you metabolize alcohol more slowly in your 50s, 60s and up than when you were younger. The result is that alcohol stays in your blood longer, increasing its sedating effect. And this effect can be obvious even with light drinking. When you’re in your 30s or 40s, a glass of wine or beer at a party might relax you and help you feel more sociable. Once you hit your 50s, though, that same alcoholic drink is more likely to make you yearn for a nap! Alcohol also affects balance and coordination more as you age, increasing your likelihood of falling and injuring yourself. And alcohol impairs attention and reaction time more with age—raising your risk of causing a car crash. And it is not just drinking on its own that’s a concern. If you’re a senior, chances are that you’re taking at least one medication, either prescription or over-the-counter (OTC). Many drugs, both prescription and OTC, should not be combined with alcohol. Drugs to watch out for include pain medications, sleeping pills, antidepressants and even such seemingly benign OTC drugs as aspirin, acetaminophen and allergy medicines. When combined with alcohol, these can cause side effects such as confusion, nausea or gastrointestinal bleeding, depending on the drug. For women younger than 65, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) considers moderate drinking, providing that you’re healthy and do not take medications, to be no more than three drinks in a single day and no more than seven in a week. For men of that age, it’s no more than four drinks in a single day and no more than 14 in a week. But once you reach age 65, the NIAAA’s moderate drinking limit for both women and men is no more than three drinks in a single day or seven drinks in a week. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture, recommends no more than one daily alcoholic drink for women and no more than two for men. For reference, NIAAA identifies a drink as 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol)…eight-to-nine ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol)…five ounces of wine (12% alcohol)…or 1.5 ounces of gin, rum, tequila, etc. (80 proof, which is 40% alcohol). If the spirits you choose have higher alcohol content than that, then it takes less to count as “one drink.” But these guidelines are only averages, and for individuals, the safe amount of alcohol can be much less. Whatever amount of alcohol you’re currently drinking, if it’s affecting you to the point of causing problems, it’s best to cut back. Good idea: Include a discussion of your alcohol consumption during a regular doctor visit. Be sure to review any medications you may be taking—including OTC drugs and/or supplements—for potential interactions with alcohol. Your doctor may be able to prescribe an alternative medication if necessary.