By Alia Tuqan, M.D.
April is “Alcohol Awareness Month,” providing the perfect opportunity to discuss alcohol use as we age. Here is some useful information to guide you.
The liver metabolizes or breaks down alcohol. As people age, liver function slows down. That means it can take less alcohol to become intoxicated and alcohol can remain in the bloodstream longer.
When consumed in moderation, alcohol can have health benefits. Moderate drinking can reduce the risk of heart attack and may prevent certain types of strokes and memory problems.
Moderate drinking is no more than one drink a day for women, two for men, and only one for people age 65 or older. What is considered one drink? One drink contains about 14 grams or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. That’s equivalent to a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce shot of distilled liquor.
Excessive alcohol consumption can be harmful to your liver – and your overall health.
So, what’s excessive?
Seven or more drinks a week or three or more per occasion for women, 14 or more a week or four or more per occasion for men, and seven or more a week or three or more per occasion for people age 65 or older is considered heavy drinking and puts people at greater risk for drinking-related problems.
As people grow older, their walking and balance can become compromised.
That’s why the risk of falls increases dramatically with age. Falls in older adults can lead to brain injuries, hip fractures and other catastrophic events. Alcohol use and intoxication can exacerbate walking and balance problems, further increasing fall and injury risk.
In addition to walking and balance problems, older adults typically have other medical conditions – such as memory problems and depression – that can be worsened by alcohol use and intoxication.
Many older adults take at least one medication, if not several, which raises their risk of drug-drug or drug-alcohol interactions.
For example, people who are on warfarin (Coumadin), a medication used to thin the blood, may need to cut back on alcohol or eliminate it altogether.
The medication and alcohol can interact to thin the blood to dangerous levels, potentially leading to life-threatening bleeding in the brain, stomach or elsewhere in the body.
No amount of drinking and driving is safe! Any amount of alcohol can impair judgment and lead to accidents. At or above certain blood-alcohol concentrations, driving becomes illegal. These limits vary by state and country.
In California, the legal limit is 0.08 percent. People found driving at or above this level can be charged with driving under the influence (DUI).
The Department of Motor Vehicles provides charts to serve as guidelines for time from first drink, number of drinks, individual weights and likely concentrations. Because older people have slower liver metabolism, they can exceed legal limits after consuming smaller amounts of alcohol in shorter time periods.
Older adults with certain medical conditions and on particular medications need to reduce or eliminate alcohol. Check with your doctor regarding the right amount, if any, for you. He or she can review your medical issues, medications and drinking habits to help determine safe levels of alcohol consumption.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have a drinking problem, ask your doctor for help.
He or she may suggest counseling or prescribe a medication to help. There are community resources as well.
For individuals, there is Alcoholics Anonymous. For their friends and family, there is Al-Anon. Visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov for more information.
Dr. Alia Tuqan is a board certified geriatrician with the highly regarded UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica and Westwood. For more information, call 310.319.4371 or visit www.uclahealth.org.