Alcohol and the elderly: here’s to your good health!

When it comes to our senior citizens enjoying a drink here and there, there’s no need for us to be too worried. In fact, there are definite benefits for the elderly in drinking small amounts of alcohol. But there is a point where it gets tricky, as a certain dichotomy emerges. The ageing demographic can benefit more than other groups from mild alcohol consumption, yet a change in physiology, often accompanied by increased social isolation can lead to problems.

A persuasive amount of evidence exists for the positive effects of moderate drinking for older adults. For example, it can be beneficial for the prevention of coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction, and heart failure. For postmenopausal women who drink moderately, there may be benefits including increased bone density and a reduction in the risk of osteoporosis. Light to moderate drinking has even been linked to a reduction in the incidence of type II diabetes in both men and women.

Many elderly people will be happy to know that benefits have also been reported when it comes to both brain function and psychological well-being. Many of the psychological benefits are due to the stress reducing effects of alcohol and enhanced mood, which lends itself to more social behaviour. Arguably, those that attend more social functions may drink alcohol at these events. Either way, both social interaction and stress reduction are very beneficial.

Quantity of alcohol consumed
Research shows that for the most part, alcohol consumption decreases in old age, for a variety of reasons. Those that have always abstained or been very light drinkers reportedly stay the same, while those that have consumed a moderate to heavy amount reportedly reduce their consumption over time. Alcohol abuse or binge drinking was thought to be less prevalent in the older than the younger populations. However, the verdict is not clear here. Some people argue that reports may be inaccurate due to insufficient data. What is probable is that there has not been enough investigative research into the area of alcohol consumption and the elderly. As the ageing population increases in many countries around the world, more reports of alcohol abuse are starting to appear. With such conflicting statistics, it is wise to keep an open mind.

Negative effects of alcohol on the elderly
Older bodies respond differently to alcoholic beverages than younger bodies, so care does need to be taken. Several factors contribute to this. The increased need for medications as we age increases the potential for unpleasant interactions with alcohol. As we age, our physiology changes: we have more fat cells and a decreased amount of total body water. These two factors combined result in a decreased ability to metabolise the alcohol, resulting in a higher blood alcohol concentration than that of a younger person consuming the same amount. This is the same principle as women’s decreased ability to tolerate alcohol: due to a larger percentage of body fat, females generally do not handle alcohol as well as men.

As we age, we are also more prone to falling. Our bodies weaken and co-ordination decreases. We are also likely to be less flexible. Combined, these factors affect our ability to balance. Statistically, elderly people are already more prone to falls than younger people. When you add alcohol to the equation, the risk is amplified significantly.

Elderly women also have to be careful of excessive alcohol consumption due to the link between breast cancer and alcohol. This is thought to be caused by the hormonal changes that take place after menopause.

Alcohol abuse
Certain events that happened in our later years can trigger the abuse of alcohol. This is more likely to occur when an individual has turned to alcohol as a form of stress relief at other times in their life. When inevitable events of old age take place, such as the loss of a spouse, loved one or pet, or increased social isolation, some people will unfortunately attempt to find solace in drinking. As the ageing individual no longer has the commitments they had in the past, such as daily employment, it is easy for them to slip quietly into an addictive problem well before anyone notices. With these issues in mind, it’s important to stay in regular contact with older people that live alone to monitor such behaviour, and provide support when it is needed.

Providing alcohol is consumed responsibly, and in moderation, it does offer many benefits for the elderly. One could argue that as some joys have to be relinquished in later years, why remove something that is pleasant and not harmful if it is enjoyed responsibly? Once again, moderation is key.

Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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