Alcohol And Seniors



What’s the Worry?

Is Alcohol Good for You?

You’ve probably read it or heard it somewhere—a glass of red wine will keep the blood pumping through the veins unclogged; or that a drink before dinner will stimulate the appetite. Even Morley Safer on 60 Minutes in the early 1990s talked about the "French Paradox"—suggesting that red wine is good you. In countries like France, people eat high fat diets but do not seem to have as much heart disease as we might expect, possibly because they consume wine with their meals.

Is any of it true? Or is this simply propaganda from the wineries, breweries, and distilleries?


The answer, is yes, and no. Research on alcohol and heart disease is drawn from what are referred to as epidemiological studies—large-scale studies involving thousands of people.

Epidemiological research shows averages. So they can’t tell what’s good or bad for a specific person. Also, this type of research usually looks at one health problem at a time. Fairly good studies have indicated that people who do not drink alcohol have somewhat higher rates of coronary heart disease than moderate drinkers.

It has been suggested that alcohol in moderation may provide some protection against coronary heart disease. It is thought that alcohol may interfere with the formation of blood clots and slowing down the build-up of plaque in the arteries. (1)

One thing is very clear: the researchers are talking about moderation for this effect (less than one drink a day). As alcohol consumption increases above that amount, any potential health effects disappear fast.

This is one area where "More is Definitely Not Better".


Researchers describe the results as being in a "J-curve" (2). People who donít drink have some risk of heart disease. People who drink a little have a lower risk of heart disease. People who drink a lot have a very high risk of heart disease.

Also, if you look at overall morbidity (do seniors who drink have more health problems) and overall mortality (do they die earlier of something), the picture may be different. (3)

Seniors tend to be sicker and they tend to die sooner, even if they are only drinking what younger people might consider as relatively moderate amounts of alcohol. Seniors may not die of heart disease, but they may experience other problems as a result of their level of alcohol consumption, if it exceeded what is safe for them. That may include social or family problems, mental or physical health problems, financial or legal problems.

Part of the problem is that the human body becomes less able to get rid of the toxic effects of alcohol as people age—alcohol stays in the body longer. Potential adverse medication- alcohol interactions create another problem.


Reducing the Risk

You can also reduce the risk of heart disease significantly by other means. For example,

The alcohol-related benefits seem to come from flavanoids/anti-oxidants. A number of foods provide these.


CARP's Fifty Plus magazine carries a good review on alcohol and eating called "Here's to your health" by Rosie Schwartz in its December 2001 edition. Ms. Schwartz notes in the Nurses Health Study, where Harvard University researchers studied more than 80,000 women, the strongest protective effect of moderate alcohol intake was observed in women who had the highest intake of the B vitamin, folate. It is found in dark leafy vegetables. She goes onto say "So to derive most benefit from alcohol, you may also need to eat you veggies."


Just a Research Artifact?

It has also been suggested that the epidemiological studies on alcohol and heart disease are simply a research artifact. It may be that some people don’t drink because they have serious medical conditions now or throughout their lives. At least one study suggests that, if you exclude people with pre-existing disease, there is an increase in death from heart disease even at low rates of drinking (one half to two drinks a day).

Others point out that while coronary heart disease may be less pervasive in France, it is still the number one cause of death there. Also, people in France die of many other causes associated with higher alcohol use, such as alcohol related cancers and liver cirrhosis. See Alcohol and Culture.


Consequences of Alcohol Consumption for Seniors

It is important to that recognize even relatively small amounts of alcohol taken by an older person may have extensive effects. In part, this is because older people metabolize alcohol more slowly than younger adults. For example, if a 30 year old and a 70 year old person each consume 3 drinks, the 70 year old person will have a significantly higher blood alcohol level and the alcohol will remain in the older person's body longer.

Also, it is important to remember that many seniors rely on 5 or 6 different kinds of prescription drugs. There are at least 150 drugs commonly prescribed for seniors that have a significant interaction with alcohol.(4) These include anti-diabetic agents, nitro-glycerine, and psychoactive agents. Even small amounts of alcohol combined with therapeutics doses of anti-anxiety drugs, tranquilizers, or anti-depressants enhance the depressant effect of the alcohol.




  1. Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. "Moderate Drinking and Health" Joint policy statement. International Symposium on Moderate Drinking and Health, April 30-May 1, 1993 Toronto, Canada.
  2. Criqui, M.H. (1994) "Alcohol and the heart: Implications of present epidemiologic knowledge" Contemporary Drug Problems: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 21 (1) 125-142.
  3. Shaper, G., Wannamethee G., & Walker, M. (1988)."Alcohol and mortality in British men: explaining the U-shaped curve". Lancet II 8623 1267-73.
  4. Blake, R. (1990) " Mental health counselling and older problem drinkers" J. of Mental Health Counselling 12 (3) 354-367 at 356.


Page last updated Saturday June 19, 2004

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