Aging and the Long-term Effects of Alcohol

glass of wine

For many people, coming home at the end of the day and having a couple drinks to unwind and relax is a common occurrence. It’s a seemingly benign behavior that’s more harmful than what most people expect—mainly because of its negative impact on health later in life.

Women who consume more than one drink per day on average, and men who consume more than two drinks per day on average, are considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be “heavy drinkers.” While a drink or two each day may not seem excessive now, the long-term effect on health may prove otherwise. Studies have demonstrated unpleasant side effects that alcohol consumption has on people’s health as they age—suggesting this is a habit to consider giving up.

Four Side Effects of Alcohol Use

  • Worsened brain function: The aging human brain naturally shrinks, and the growth of new brain cells gradually slows down. Long-term use of alcohol has a similar effect, thus exacerbating the normal aging process and brain function. Problems with coordination and muscle movement can occur, increasing the risk for falls and injury. Memory loss, depression, anxiety, and exaggerated emotional states are frequent manifestations in old age that can be hastened by the use of excessive alcohol.
  • Increased risk of heart disease: Beyond the effects on brain function, excessive alcohol intake can raise the level of triglycerides in the blood, increasing the risk for developing heart disease. Since coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, enlarged heart, atrial fibrillation, and heart attacks are common diagnoses in the elderly, alcohol consumption can increase the likelihood of their development as well.
  • Malnourishment and kidney failure: The gastrointestinal effects of alcohol use include gastritis, acid reflux, ulcers, diarrhea, and vomiting. Because of the calories in alcohol, chronic drinkers oftentimes feel less hungry, eat less, and subsequently become malnourished. Kidney failure, which affects the regulation of fluids and electrolytes in the body, can also occur. As a result of these consequences, skin can become dehydrated and depleted of the essential vitamins and minerals that are needed for the maintenance of healthy skin tissue, thus increasing the risk for skin breakdown.
  • Brittle bones and joint inflammation: Aging bones normally become more brittle and are more prone to fractures. Long-term alcohol use can interfere with bone growth and the replacement of bone tissue, resulting in decreased bone density and an increased risk of fracture. Alcohol use also leaches calcium from bones, often leading to osteoporosis. Joint inflammation, as well as the pain associated with arthritis, can be accelerated or aggravated by alcohol use.

Chronic alcohol use affects every organ and system of the body, but these effects often only become apparent over the course of many years. Long-term care facilities commonly have residents that suffer from dementia, strokes, cardiac disease, skin breakdown, pain, and malnutrition/dehydration. Some of the infirmities are due to the natural aging process. Some can possibly be attributed to genetics. But it’s likely that individual life choices and patterns have had at least some impact on the development of any of these conditions, although it’s difficult determining to what extent.

So far, scientists have been unsuccessful in finding a way to stop the normal aging process. Some promising breakthroughs have been achieved through improved diet, regular exercise, and preventive healthcare. Although there is no cure or reversal of the aging process, people can make the decision to eliminate behaviors and choices that have been proven to exacerbate the effects of aging. Any measures that will decrease the loss of brain cells, enhance the ability to maintain healthy skin, and reduce the effects of osteoporosis can significantly improve the ability to maintain health and independence in later years. One thing is for certain: the fountain of youth is not filled with alcohol.

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