‘I’ll drink to that’: Can drinking alcohol benefit the elderly?

Published 10:26 am Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Holiday season is upon us, and with that, the concerns about over-imbibing alcohol during this time of year. To be sure, there’s little doubt that the research has shown that too much consumption of alcohol, just like consuming too much of anything from turkey and sweet potato pie to cookies and chocolate, isn’t good for anyone.
But what about the impact on the health of seniors who drink?  As we age, our metabolism slows down. This simply means that we don’t process anything we ingest as quickly as we did when we were younger. Medicines stay in our systems longer and so, too, does alcohol. Elderly people may be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, especially if they use certain drugs that are contraindicated, have lower muscle mass or tend to eat a poor diet.
Now I’m not speaking of abusive levels of alcohol consumption, but sensible limits of daily intake of alcohol. Typically, sensible intake has been defined as one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is defined as an ounce of liquor or 4-oz. of wine and 12-oz. of beer – beyond those amounts you’re exceeding common medical advice.
Medical research documented the important role that moderate drinking can play in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, diabetes, dementia and osteoporosis. Advising healthy people aged 65 years or older who are moderate, responsible drinkers to stop drinking or to markedly reduce their intake would not be in their best health interests, especially in terms of their risk of cardiovascular diseases.
One interesting fact is that the absolute risk for cardiovascular diseases increases markedly with age, and therefore the beneficial or protective effect of light to moderate drinking on cardiovascular diseases is greater in the elderly than in younger people. And there is new evidence accumulating that shows that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia is lower among moderate drinkers than among abstainers.
Regular dietary intake of flavonoid-rich foods like dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, and beverages such as red wine, have been associated with 50-percent reduction in the risk of dementia, preservation of cognitive performance, a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and a reduction in the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
There are also scientific data demonstrating that quality of life is better and total mortality is lower among moderate drinkers than among abstainers. In one research project in New South Wales, it was demonstrated that regular moderate alcohol consumption increases life span and quality of life for men up to 80 years of age and for women indefinitely. The research concluded that for healthy moderate and responsible drinkers, advice to reduce or stop all alcoholic beverage consumption would not necessarily benefirt their best health interests.
So the next time someone proposes a toast, saying “Here’s to your health,” you can join them and respond, “I’ll drink to that.”
Ron Kauffman is a Geriatric Consultant & Planner in private practice in Henderson & Polk Counties.  He is the author of Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease, available at the Polk County Senior Center.  His podcasts can be heard weekly at www.seniorlifestyles.net. You can reach him at his office at (828) 626-9799, on his cell at (561) 818-0039 or by email at drron561@gmail.com.

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