The Hard Truth About Alcohol and Aging

Falling into heavy drinking or even alcoholism is a real problem during retirement, no matter how much you may welcome that final workday. So before you pour that glass of wine or savor that martini, here’s some information you should know.

A 2017 JAMA Psychiatry article released the results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that people 65 years and older increased their alcohol use by more than 22 percent between 2001 and 2012, the highest increase among all age groups. Retirees are most likely to increase their drinking because of financial stress, a loss of work identity, feeling useless, social isolation, boredom, and depression. 

Are You a Light, Moderate, or Heavy Drinker? 

Light3 drinks or fewer per week3 drinks or fewer per week
Moderate4-7 drinks per week4-14 drinks per week
Heavy8+ drinks per week15+ drinks per week
drinks per week

Surprise! As you can see, anyone who has one drink each day falls into the “moderate drinking” category. Women who consume more than that are considered heavy drinkers, as are men who have two or three drinks a day.

The definition of one drink may be less than you imagine as well. A glass of wine is officially 5 ounces, while 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol constitutes a drink. It’s common for people to consume a much heavier pour than these amounts, and subsequently under-report their drinking. People who imbibe a highball scotch on the rocks, for example, may think they’re having only one drink. But a full glass over ice is actually more like four.

The Harm From Alcohol

Most people know that heavy alcohol usage causes liver damage. But there is a laundry list of its other negative consequences. These include damage to the heart, increased blood pressure, and weakening of the immune system. Heavy drinking can also increase the risk of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It also causes sleep disruption, depletes the body of vital nutrients, and reduces collagen levels resulting in loose, saggy skin. 

Is Light Drinking Okay?

We did title this blog post “The Hard Truth About Alcohol and Aging” for a reason.

Recent 2022 studies from the UK  and from University of Pennsylvania found that as little as four standard alcoholic drinks a week can be linked to brain changes associated with cognitive decline and reductions in overall brain volume. “These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits (see Are You a Light, Moderate, or Heavy Drinker? table above),” says Henry R. Kranzler, co-author on the Penn study and director of the Penn Center for Studies of Addiction. In addition, as we age, we metabolize alcohol differently and become more sensitive to its effects. This means that the same amount we drank when we were younger can cause more intoxication than it did before. Older people are also more likely to have conditions that can be complicated by alcohol, such as balance problems, or may take medications that interact adversely with it. 

There may be some health benefits to drinking alcohol in moderation such as protection against Type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Some studies suggest that alcohol can improve digestion before a meal and that having a drink with friends might reinforce important social connections (see Big Retired Life post: Cultivate Your Social Power). However, generally speaking, the negative effects of alcohol far outweigh the positive ones.

Bottom Line

From a health perspective, we would all be better off avoiding alcoholic beverages. People who have stopped consuming alcohol entirely consistently report that they have more energy, sleep better, lose weight, and feel mentally more astute than they did when they drank. They cite better relationships, and having more time and money as beneficial side effects of stopping. 

If you don’t wish to stop entirely, consider at least reducing your consumption levels. “The people who can benefit the most from drinking less are the people who are already drinking the most,” say Gideon Nave, co-author on the Penn study and faculty member at the Wharton School.

Here are some easy-to-follow tips to help you curb drinking alcohol. Remember, too, that alcohol-free alternatives such as mocktails are always an option. For some “virgin” versions of classic drinks, try these.

Throughout the “Top Priorities” section of this blog, we will provide data-backed insights for a long, active retirement.

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