The holidays are a time for participating in many rituals, like lugging gigantic trees into your living room, draping oversized socks from your mantle and leaving plates of cookies out to fuel a heavy-bearded senior citizen and his reindeer through the arduous, albeit miraculous, task of worldwide gift deliveries. 

Whether you welcome these traditions, however, there is one reigning custom that transcends religion and culture during the holidays: the gathering of friends and family to eat, drink and be merry. 

For those who are 21 or older, this can mean, on average, consuming more alcohol than usual at more frequent intervals. Between work parties, family gatherings and other get-togethers, it is important to know how alcohol affects the body in relation to key factors — most notably, age. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies the standard measure of alcohol as 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol (the equivalent of one 12-ounce beer, one 8-ounce malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor). How many drinks each person’s individual body can withstand before drinking becomes detrimental to their health is dependent upon a number of factors, such as height, gender, physical condition, family history, weight, age and frequency of alcohol use, among other things. 

Moderate drinking, as defined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. 

Although varying in degree, as a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, alcohol affects every organ in the human body. Because the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, excess alcohol is left to circulate throughout the body, causing the effect of drunkenness directly correlating to the amount of alcohol consumed.

With age, the effects of alcohol undoubtedly worsen as the metabolism begins to slow and bodies become at risk for several other health factors. 

“As we age we become much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol,” explained dietitian Timi Gustafson, “and one reason is that older people just break [alcohol] down much slower than younger people.” 

She continued, “Aging also lowers the body’s tolerance to alcohol, meaning an adult will start to experience the symptoms sooner than a younger person.” 

 

Alcohol vs. aging

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a 2008 national survey found that 40 percent of adults age 65 and older drink alcohol. Although variable, for most people, aging causes diminished mental and physical aptitude. Senior citizens are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol because of increased sensitivity to alcohol, increased health problems and potentially hazardous interactions with medications. 

Common drugs, Gustafson explained, can even be deadly when mixed with alcohol. “If you take aspirin and drink, for example, your risk for intestinal or stomach bleeding is much higher,” she said. 

Over time, alcohol can lead to the development of chronic diseases, neurological impairments and social problems, according to the CDC. Dementia, stroke, neuropathy, cancer, cardiovascular problems and several liver diseases have all been linked to excessive alcohol intake over an extended period of time. 

These sentiments were echoed by Gustafson, who said, “As we age, the cumulative effects of alcohol can certainly damage the brain and mental capacity and become much more challenging.”

Knowing when another drink is too much can sometimes be difficult to identify among the aging population, since most signs — such as the reduced ability to function, the increased risk of falling and the exacerbation of some medical conditions — can all also be attributed to old age. 

“Muddled thinking,” Gustafson explained, “would be one thing that can also be mistaken for dementia and Alzheimer’s…. As we age, we just don’t metabolize [alcohol] as well…. If you are drinking a lot, then you may not be getting the nutrients you need and you will be gaining weight.” 

Weight gain increases the risk for many other health problems and can be a key sign of overconsumption among seniors. 

In a study funded by the NIAAA and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, it was found that 9 percent of Medicare beneficiaries age 65 years or older engaged in unhealthy drinking. The NIAAA states that the drinking guidelines for healthy adults over age 65 who do not take medications are no more than three drinks on a given day or seven total drinks in a week. 

However, as Gustafson explains, it is important to remember that, “in large amounts, it doesn’t matter what your age is, it can be very detrimental to your health, your liver.” 

If an individual is exceeding these guidelines, it may be time to scale-back alcohol intake, she said. 

 

Focus on yourself, others

The best way to avoid heavy drinking during the holidays is to be conscious of alcohol intake as much as possible. Between the stress of the holidays and the influx of festivities, it is important to go into the season with a plan for your health. 

“If you can pace yourself and throw yourself more into the conversation and into the holiday season,” Gustafson recommended, “make it more of a celebration of talking to people, seeing people you haven’t seen for a long time.” 

Sipping on one glass of wine in your hand for the night, for example, is one way to avoid drinking too much. 

Overall, “if you exercise regularly, given your body what it needs, take care of your emotions, work consciously every day on keeping a healthy balance in your life,” Gustafson explained, “you will feel much better when you get older in all levels of your life.”

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