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Aging Baby Boomers and Alcohol

Becoming More Sensitive to Alcohol's Effects

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Updated July 22, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Stressed Senior Lady

Alcohol can affect older drinkers differently.

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As more than 10,000 baby boomers a day are turning 65 years old, many of them may need to adjust their attitudes toward alcohol consumption -- particularly given the fact that as the body ages, how it interacts with and reacts to alcohol also changes.

On Jan. 1, 2011, the first of the baby boomer generation -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- began to turn age 65. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 10,000 Americans a day will turn that age, a trend that will continue for the next 19 years.

Although most baby boomers say they think you are not "elderly" until you are 72 years of age, and the average boomer says she feels nine years younger than she is, the truth is by 2030 an estimated 79 million Americans will no longer be middle-aged.

Bodies Change As We Age

For those who drink, they may find that their bodies no longer react to alcohol as they used to react. As your body ages, it changes. As you age, you metabolize alcohol more slowly than you did when you were younger, so the alcohol and its effects stay in the body longer.

Also as you age, your body's makeup changes, meaning the same amount of alcohol you are used to drinking can now produce a higher blood-alcohol concentration. In other words, you can become more intoxicated or impaired that you once were on the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol Can Cause Injuries, Death

If you continue to drink alcohol as you grow older, thinking that you can continue to consume the same amount as you always have, you can put yourself at risk for injury or death from falls, household accidents or car crashes, due to impaired judgement, reaction times and coordination.

According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol is a factor in 60 percent of fatal burn injuries, drownings and homicides and in 40 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides and fatal falls.

Alcohol Affects Health, Medication

As you grow older, chances are you may develop chronic diseases that drinking can make worse. Alcohol can adversely affect many health conditions, including liver problems, congestive heart failure, memory problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Alcohol can also affect people with any psychiatric condition, such as depression and anxiety.

A significant problem, however, is the way drinking alcohol can react with any medications that you may be taking for other health conditions. Alcohol can cause some medicines to not work properly or to become dangerous. Mixing alcohol with medicine can cause -- among other problems -- sleepiness, confusion, lack of coordination, nausea, vomiting and headaches.

Alcohol Problems May Go Unnoticed

Another reason that alcohol consumption can be a problem for baby boomers is the fact that in general, drinking problems among older people can go unnoticed by others. Alcohol abuse among older adults is often undiagnosed, unreported or simply ignored.

One reason alcohol problems are undiagnosed among the elderly is because some of the symptoms, such as frequent falls or injuries or loss of memory, are written off as just part of getting older.

There is also an attitude among some health professionals that treatment for alcohol abuse among the elderly is a waste of time and resources. Many times, this attitude is also reflected in the older drinker's own family members, who feel that confronting the problem will just create more problems.

Less Likely to Seek Help

Another factor for baby boomers who drink is that many of them came of age in the freewheeling 1960s and 1970s and have other substance abuse issues. Many still continue recreational drug use into their sixties. This makes it less likely for them to seek help on their own for a drinking problem.

There is also research that shows that members of the baby boomer generation are generally reluctant and ashamed to admit their abuse of drugs and alcohol and less likely to seek professional help, compared to younger generations. They consider it a private matter.

But there is other research that shows that early intervention programs aimed at older substance abusers can save them from developing even more serious health problems. Older people with substance abuse problems have medical expenses that increase at a far higher rate than behavioral health care would cost, research shows.

Help Is There If You Want It

If you are a baby boomer and you drink alcohol, what is a safe level of drinking? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that "healthy men and women over age 65 should not drink more than three drinks a day or a total of seven drinks a week."

But even at that level of consumption, some people can develop problems. Depending on other health factors and how the older person's body reacts to alcohol, the NIAAA says that some older adults may need to drink even less than one drink a day and some drink not at all.

If you find that you cannot limit your alcohol consumption to the recommended guidelines or if you try to quit and find that you cannot do so, you may want to seek outside help. You also may want to take this quiz to see if you may have already developed an alcohol problem.

Sources:

NIH Senior Health. "Alcohol Use and Older Adults." National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. August 2009.

Pew Research Center. "Baby Boomers Approach Age 65 -- Glumly." December 2010.

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