Physical Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol slows down brain activity. Because alcohol affects alertness, judgment, coordination, and reaction time, drinking increases the risk of falls and accidents. Some research has shown that it takes less alcohol to affect older people than younger ones. Over time, heavy drinking permanently damages the brain and central nervous system, as well as the liver, heart, kidneys, and stomach. Alcohol's effects can make some medical problems hard to diagnose. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels that can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack. It also can cause forgetfulness and confusion, which can seem like Alzheimer's disease.

Alcohol and aging, ALCOHOL ALERT (April, 1998), 40. Persons age 65 and older constitute the fastest growing segment of the American population. Although the extent of alcoholism among the elderly is debated, the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol problems are likely to become increasingly important as the elderly population grows. This Alcohol Alert reviews recent research on the extent of alcohol consumption and associated problems among the elderly, updating an earlier Alcohol Alert on this subject (1).

Connor, K. R., Beautrais, A. L., Conwell, Y., "Moderators of the relationship between alcohol dependence and suicide and medically serious suicide attempts: analyses of Canterbury Suicide Project data", ALCOHOLISM, CLINICAL AND EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH (2003), 27: 7: 1156-61. Preliminary data indicate that age, gender, and mood disorder moderate the association of alcohol dependence and suicide. The purpose of this study was to evaluate potential moderations of the relationship between alcohol dependence and suicide and medically serious suicide attempts by using case-control data gathered in the Canterbury region of New Zealand for the Canterbury Suicide Project. Data on 193 suicide decedents, 240 medically serious suicide attempters, and 984 community controls, all age 18 and overs, were gathered by using psychological autopsy methodology. Multinomial logistic analyses were used to compare the two case groups to controls on demographic and diagnostic variables. Moderating effects were evaluated based on significant statistical interactions of predictors with alcohol dependence. The association of alcohol dependence and suicide (but not medically serious attempts) was amplified with increased age. Neither mood disorder nor gender moderated the relationship between alcohol dependence and suicide, increased age amplified the association of mood disorder and suicide, whereas decreased age strengthened the association of mood disorder and medically serious suicide attempts. Older age may serve as a marker for a construct (e.g., aggression/impulsivity) that underlies the failure to mature out of alcoholism, or a late-onset subtype of alcoholism prone to negative affect, accounting for the association of older age and suicide in this population. Older age also may merely reflect longer duration of the deleterious effects of alcoholism.

Ganguli, M.; Vander Bilt, J.; Saxton, J. A.; Shen, C.; Dodge, H. H., "Alcohol consumption and cognitive function in late life: a longitudinal community study", NEUROLOGY (2005), 65: 1210-1217. In this study, covering 7 years, a pattern of mild-to-moderate drinking, compared to not drinking, was associated with lesser average decline in cognitive domains over the same period. There were approximately 1200 subjects 65 years or older in the study and the results were based on self reporting.

Gilbertson, R.; Ceballos, N. A.; Nixon, S. J. ;" Effects of acute alcohol consumption in older and younger adults: perceived impairment versus psychomotor performance", JOURNAL OF STUDIES ON ALCOHOL AND DRUGS (March, 2009), 70(2): 242-52. Perceived impairment and psychomotor performance following acute alcohol administration in older (ages 50-17, n=42, 22 male) and younger (ages 25-25, n=26, 12 male) adults were investigated. Results indicated that psychomotor performance differences did not parallel self-reported levels of perceived impairment. Relative to younger adults, older adults exhibited performance deficits on the ascending limb while simultaneously reporting less perceived impairment. Conversely, on the descending lim, older adults who received alcohol reported more perceived impairment than did those who received placebo, although psychomotor performance between these tow groups of older drinkers did not differ. For younger participants, a moderate dose of alcohol facilitated performance on the ascending limb; however, these differences were not reflected on the descending limb. Conclusions: these results reinforce the common knowledge that self-reported measures may not prove an accurate reflection of performance outcomes and, that older adults may be impaired even under a moderate dose of alcohol, although they may not be aware of this impairment.

Meier, P.; Seitz, H. K.; "Age, alcohol metabolism and liver disease", CURRENT OPTION IN CLINICAL NUTRITION AND METABOLIC CARE (2008), 11 (1), 21-26. Over recent decades alcohol consumption has increased among those who are older than 65 years. Alcohol is more toxic in the aging organism because of changes in its metabolism, distribution and elimination, which lead to central nervous system effects at lower levels of intake; also, aging organs such as brain and liver are more sensitive to the toxicity of alcohol. For these reasons, alcohol should be used in moderation, especially among those of older age.


updated 12/06/16