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Alcohol and older people

Older populations, or being defined as 'elderly’, can be misleading. The age range of the group spans at least 40 years and includes people in their late sixties, who are still actively employed and in excellent health, as well as people over 100 years of age, who are more likely to be cognitively and physically disabled. Moreover, we all age at different rates, but it is physiologic ageing - such as the modest 10-15% reduction of total body water as humans age - that underlies age-related differences in the action of alcohol on our bodies.

The UK Government guidelines explain that middle aged or elderly non-drinkers or infrequent drinkers and especially those at risk for heart disease “may wish to consider the possibility that light drinking may be of benefit to their overall health and life expectancy.” As well as the ‘heart-healthy’ benefits of moderate drinking to older people, research is also finding that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Heavy alcohol consumption will, however, cause neural damage and memory loss.

Health status is closely related to the ageing process. The biological process of ageing reflects the interactions between our genetic inheritance and environmental influences. The ageing process includes progressive and irreversible biological changes, resulting in a growing risk of chronic diseases, cognitive impairments and an impairment of functions. In the Alameda County Study long-term predictors of healthy ageing and high levels of physical functioning were: higher family income level, absence of hypertension, absence of arthritis, absence of back pain, being a non-smoker, having normal weight, and consuming moderate amounts of alcohol.

With sound advice to hand, each individual must decide whether to drink alcohol and, if so, how much and when - at meal times is best. If you are on medications, you should check if it is safe to mix them with alcohol.

Drinking when on medication (Click for more information)

How is alcohol protective to older populations?

It is thought that alcohol itself accounts for 75% of the cardio-protective effects of alcoholic beverages. It favourably alters the balance of fats or lipids in the blood, by stimulating the liver to produce the ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). HDL removes the ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) from arteries and veins for disposal via the bile, which is referred to as reverse cholesterol transport.

Alcohol decreases the clotting together or ‘stickiness’ of red blood cells, which if untreated could form a clot to block blood flow in an artery or vein to cause a heart attack or stroke. The message is little and often as the blood thinning effect of alcohol lasts for approximately 24 hours and one drink confers the benefit.

Drinking more than moderately increases chronic health risks, such as liver and heart disease, plus an increase in the risk of falls and fractures as you get older.

Health is only one aspect in this decision. Most people do not drink for health reasons but for psychological and social benefits, since alcohol serves as a mood modifier, a relaxant, and a social lubricant. No one should be choosing to drink for medical benefits rather than enjoyment and pleasure.

The US 2010 Guidelines state :'An average daily intake of one to two alcoholic beverages is associated with the lowest all-cause mortality and a low risk of diabetes and CHD among middle-aged and older adults. Despite this overall benefit of moderate alcohol consumption, the evidence for a positive association between alcohol consumption and risk of unintentional injuries and breast and colon cancer should be taken into consideration. The DGAC recommends that if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation, and only by adults.

More about the health effects of alcohol (Click for more information)

Read "Alcohol consumption and the elderly, do adult responsible drinking guidelines apply?" a summary paper by Erik Skovenborg of Scandinavian Medical Alcohol Board.

Please visit the gateway to sensible drinking and health, alcoholinmoderation.com for specific studies and summary papers.

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