Your Body Processes Alcohol Differently As You Age

By Kelly Burch 01/09/19

Experts detail the way our bodies process alcohol as we age.

older man drinking alcohol

Hard partying might seem like a young person’s game, but experts warn that people need to be conscious of their alcohol intake as they get older, because aging changes how the body processes alcohol and the reasons why people drink. 

“You may not realize it, but as we age, we become more vulnerable to developing an alcohol use disorder, more commonly known as alcoholism,” Brad Lander wrote in a blog post for The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Ohio State’s College of Medicine, where he is a psychologist and addiction medicine specialist.

Biology is partially to blame, Lander said. As people get older, the body breaks down alcohol more slowly, so alcohol stays in the body for longer. At the same time, tolerance for alcohol decreases. 

“Even if you don’t develop an alcohol use disorder, it’s important to know that your body processes alcohol less efficiently the older you get,” he wrote. 

Another risk for older adults who drink is that alcohol will interact with medications they are on, causing unintended side affects. 

“[Alcohol] also can decrease the effectiveness of some medications and highly accelerate others, including over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, sleeping pills and others,” Lander wrote. 

In addition, many older adults might drink alone as a way to deal with isolation or depression, he noted. 

“The reasons why people are drinking may change as they grow older,” he said. “Chances are, younger and middle-aged people are more likely to drink in social gatherings or celebrating with family and friends, while seniors may drink more to seek relief from the boredom, loneliness and grief that are common with aging.”

Although the amount people can drink will vary, Lander said that on average a senior shouldn’t have more than seven drinks in a week or three drinks in a sitting. Drinking more than that can lead to health complications including increased risk of falls, worsening of chronic health conditions like diabetes or heart disease and increased risk of dementia. 

Lander pointed out that even among people who follow these guidelines, about 2% will develop an alcohol use disorder. 

Lander suggested that older adults start by being more mindful of when and why they are drinking. They should also eat food when they drink in order to slow alcohol absorption. 

“A lot of drinking is ‘thoughtless,’ so simply ask yourself, ‘Do I really want a (or another) drink?’” Lander wrote. “Stand up to peer pressure to drink. Remember, you don’t have to drink.” 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.