Although alcohol consumption was shown to improve episodic memory for men and women over age 60 in a study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias, health care professionals continue to advise careful consideration of the special risks of drinking for seniors. Nearly 40 percent of adults over the age of 65 drink, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2010.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Universities of Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas, and analyzed data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort. The study concluded that people aged 60 and older, who were not already suffering from dementia, experienced an improved ability to recall events or memories after light-to-moderate alcohol consumption.
The researchers noted that each of the people in the study who experienced an improved memory while consuming alcohol also had a bigger hippocampus, the part of the brain where episodic memories are stored. The size of the hippocampus is known to directly affect an individual’s ability to recall events. Scientists who have measured hippocampus size in animal studies speculate that moderate drinking may increase the hippocampus by helping to create new nerve cells in that area of the brain.
Studies like these pave the way for many new and interesting discoveries in neurology and other areas of scientific inquiry. Meanwhile, the debate continues about whether the health benefits of alcohol outweigh the risks for seniors.
The benefits of drinking for improving heart health are well publicized, yet scientists caution that any benefit realized from drinking can only come from consumption in moderation. Moderate consumption is widely defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink is equivalent to five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirit. With this definition in mid, the Mayo Clinic cautions that health benefits may not accrue to everyone who drinks and advises that those who are not already drinkers should not start because the benefits do not outweigh the risks.
Alcohol’s risks are of particular concern to seniors because of the unique physiological and psychological circumstances that apply to older people. The gerontological experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explain that, physiologically, an older body metabolizes alcohol more slowly than a younger body. Because the bodies of older people contain less water than younger people, older bodies automatically retain a higher percentage of alcohol in the blood.
That means an older person can very rapidly develop problems from drinking, and from consuming what may appear to be very small amounts. Furthermore, the problems may not be immediately noticed by people who are regular or long-term drinkers, because the body’s age-related changes happen gradually while the individual’s drinking habits remain the same.
Experts agree that the greatest risks drinking poses for seniors are associated with consuming large amounts over long periods of time. Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to some kinds of cancer, liver damage, and immune system depression. Drinking can also worsen diabetes, high blood pressure, ulcers and osteoporosis. An additional risk involves diminished muscular coordination, which increases the elderly drinker’s risk for falls and traffic accidents.
Medication interactions with alcohol are a huge risk consideration for many seniors, many of whom take multiple medications daily. The National Institute on Aging cautions that even over-the-counter drugs can be problematic. For example, aspirin combined with alcohol increases the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Alcohol combined with an antihistamine results in excessive drowsiness. Acetaminophen plus alcohol equals liver damage. Alcohol used with some prescription sleep aids, pain medications, and anti-anxiety medication can be deadly. Many other prescription and over the counter medications can be dangerous or even deadly when taken simultaneously with a drink.
Psychologically, older adults may be more prone to experiencing multiple losses, such as retirement, the deaths of friends or spouses, the onset of a disability or life-changing, life-threatening, or chronically painful medical condition. While light-to-moderate drinking may provide a much-needed form of relaxation or social stimulation, seeking solace or drowning grief with the contents of a bottle can exacerbate existing health problems and create new ones.
Conflicting study results about the health benefits and risks of alcohol create mixed messages in the media, making the Mayo Clinic’s advice to drink alcohol only in moderation or not at all a sound piece of advice. Because alcohol brings both health benefits and health risks to seniors, it is important for health care providers and psychiatrists to work with individuals over the age of 60 to identify and treat unrecognized misuse.
By Lane Therrell