As humans age, their bodies react to alcohol differently, and they become more sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol. As a result, guidelines from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) are more restrictive for older people than those for younger adults.
There are a number of reasons why alcohol use carries potentially even greater risks for the elderly.
Older people have less muscle mass and less water content, which means more alcohol ends up circulating in the blood. Also, older people metabolize alcohol more slowly, so that its effects last longer. An enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH, is needed to begin breaking down alcohol. As the enzyme acts, alcohol’s effects decline.
Altogether, this means that senior citizens aged 60 or older run a bigger risk of developing alcohol problems. The older brain will be more sensitive to alcohol, say psychologists who study ageing and alcohol effects. Research finds subtle effects on cognitive abilities already among older people who use alcohol moderately.
In a 2014 study, volunteers were given alcohol to achieve blood alcohol concentrations of either 0.04% or 0.065%. Note: it is less than the 0.08 legal level that currently classifies a driver as intoxicated. Volunteers were then tested in a driving simulator. At the higher level, people at the age of 55 and older were more erratic with their steering and were worse at maintaining a consistent speed than younger volunteers, who showed no significant impairment.
Even moderate alcohol consumers may need to reconsider their alcohol habits as they are getting older.
About 50% of the people aged 65 and older do consume alcohol. Approximately 10% to 15% use alcohol at a level that exceeds the NIAAA guidelines, which puts them at risk for negative consequences.
Most people reduce or quit consuming alcohol as they get older, often because of worsening health.