Alcohol and Aging: What You Need to Know

by Meghan Lyle
Glasses of champagne with a beautiful view in the background

By the age of 50, a lot of our dietary patterns have become part of a routine. For many adults, that means enjoying a glass of wine or beer (or even two) with dinner.

Alcohol is always a hot topic in the nutrition field, since it can have such variable effects on health. One day it seems like a superfood and the next it’s a disease-causing toxin. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and recommendations are not the same for everyone.

Moderation Is Important

Moderate alcohol consumption — one drink per day for women and two for men — has been associated with lower risk of heart failure, stroke, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and mild cognitive impairment. (“Moderate” alcohol consumption is lower for women because they metabolize alcohol more slowly and have lower amounts of alcohol dehydrogenase in their stomachs, one of the first sites of alcohol metabolism.)

With that list of potential benefits, it might be easy to think of alcohol as a health food! You should exercise caution, however, given that immoderate, long-term use of alcohol has been associated with an array of diseases and conditions, including liver cirrhosis, pancreatic disease, stroke, hypertension, cognitive dysfunction, and even several types of cancer.

Since healthy alcohol consumption treads such a fine line, we should keep in mind some key recommendations as we age.

[Related: Things You Wish You Knew Before 50]

Alcohol Can Impact Biological Aging

If you’re concerned about aging well, remember that alcohol is a potent toxin that can spur many of the disease processes associated with aging. Site-specific cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, colon, rectum, and stomach are also more common in heavy drinkers. Even moderate alcohol consumption can slightly increase the risk of breast cancer.

These impacts are likely partly due to the highly toxic acetaldehyde created during alcohol metabolism. Knowing that alcohol consumption is not risk-free is important to understanding what healthy consumption looks like for you.

What About Heart Disease?

The research is clear that moderate consumption of alcohol (beer, wine, or liquor) can have positive impacts on heart health. However, no one who abstains from alcohol should feel inclined to begin just for this benefit.

You can do many things to support heart health, including enjoying a diet high in fiber, plant foods, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Getting regular exercise, managing stress, and getting regular blood pressure screenings are also important as we age.

[Related: Regular Exercise After Age 50 Can Make Your Heart Look 30 Years Younger]

If you do enjoy alcohol already, keeping to moderate intake could provide some modest additional benefit when it comes to long-term cardiovascular risk.

But I’ve Always Had a Beer With Dinner

You may have enjoyed alcohol for a while, to pair with dinner or in social settings. However, many people find reasons to think about cutting back as they age.

For one, alcohol use can worsen some health conditions that become more common in older adults, including osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and memory loss. It can also contribute to risk of falls if you already find yourself struggling with balance.

Regular alcohol use could also obscure symptoms of other diseases, making it more difficult for you to get a diagnosis and effective treatment. For example, the National Institute on Aging warns that alcohol can obscure the warning signs of a heart attack or the signs of a neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s.

Clearly, many reasons could prompt you to consider cutting back, even if you have enjoyed alcohol for a long time.

Healthy Drinking Checklist

You have a few things to consider if you want to enjoy alcohol but ensure you’re doing so in the healthiest way possible:

  • Be honest with the amount you’re drinking. Keep in mind that a “drink” is characterized as 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer. If you pour for yourself at home, try measuring out a portion to ensure you really are sticking with moderate amounts.
  • Heavy drinking even one day per week on average can cause detriments to your health. You can’t save up your allotted drinks during the week and then drink to excess on the weekend. The risks increase dramatically when that becomes a regular pattern, both for accidents and falls and long-term disease.
  • Many medicines can interact with alcohol, including aspirin, cold or allergy medicines, acetaminophen, cough syrups, sleeping or pain aids, and antidepressants. For safety, speak with your doctor to ensure none of your prescribed or regular over-the-counter medicines interact with alcohol.
  • As noted before, alcohol intake can worsen many health conditions, and your doctor could recommend alcohol abstention in the case of osteoporosis, liver disease, neurological disease, or immune system issues. Ensure you’re setting yourself up for health by speaking with your doctor about the risk of alcohol use based on your medical history.
  • If you’ve tried to cut back on alcohol before and have struggled to do so, it’s never too late to get support. Alcohol dependence and use disorders are often underdiagnosed in older adults. Speak with your doctor or counselor about options, including counseling, support groups, or medications that might help you cut back.

[Related: Five Tips for Feeling Great as You Age]

Other Ideas for Moderation

Here are a few final tips to help moderate your alcohol intake:

  • If alcohol is more about the routine and relaxation, try other things to make your dinner meal feel special. Invite a friend over, use nice place settings, or make a fancy “mocktail” drink that you can sip out of a nice glass.
  • If you feel pressured to drink more than you would like by friends or family, or simply because it’s the social norm, try setting and enforcing boundaries for yourself and practice saying no in a way that feels comfortable to you. One example: “Thanks so much, but I find that I feel so much better the next day when I stick to one glass.”
  • Drink out of a smaller glass. Wine glasses have gotten much larger than they used to be, and it can be easy to pour a larger portion if you’re using a larger glass.

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Featured image via Pixabay

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