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Lifestyle: Growing older with alcohol

19 Dec 2017

As I get older my ability to absorb and break down alcohol reduces. I knew it!

Very sad!

According to Michael Cooper, my go-to writer on wine, in a weekly column on wine in the Listener he wrote, “The bodily organs that metabolise alcohol shrink as you get older, so the alcohol stays in your system longer.” Oh no.

“Plus, the total fluid in our bodies is a lot less – we get more dehydrated as we get older – so alcohol won’t be broken down as quickly as it did when we were young.”

Michael quotes London-based old-age psychiatrist Dr Tony Rao, “with age, our bodies become less efficient at breaking down alcohol. The organs that break down alcohol, such as the liver and the stomach, shrink as we get older. So, the alcohol stays in our system longer.”

Michael identifies a number of other factors working against the older drinker that can affect our ability to handle alcohol: the medicines we may be taking, health conditions and disabilities. And older people lose muscle as they age

Fatigue and stress are likely to be associated with older age whereas the young seem to be able to binge drink over the weekend and still be ready for work come Monday.

As one of the older drinkers, I think one of the great benefits of drinking less is that I can spend the same amount of money as I used to spend, but on better quality. I can be more discerning. Instead of buying 6 bottles of Speights I can buy 2 bottles of an imported beer or local boutique brand; instead of buying 3 bottles of wine at $20 each I can buy one bottle at $60 and get a lot more drinking pleasure.

I once learned something very interesting about good quality wine. Given the cost of all the other fixed costs in a bottle of wine like the cost of growing and picking the grapes, buildings, transport, barrels, bottles, closures, vineyard and winery overheads, tax, etc the value of the actual wine in the $20-dollar bottle of wine might only be, say, $5, whereas the value of the actual wine in the $60-bottle of wine might be more like $30, or 6 times the value of the cheaper bottle. The stuff you actually swallow improves dramatically the more you pay!

I must be more careful about drinking and driving than I used to be when I was younger. When I go out with my young colleagues from work they can probably drink twice as much as me and still be within the drink/drive alcohol limits. I ask them what their drink/driving limits are and then halve them!

It also means I must drink more water than my younger colleagues, to reverse the natural aging processes going on in my older body (I am 67).

Apparently the amount of body fat one carries is relevant too (West Virginia University, School of Public Health Alcohol Awareness). Our body tissues absorb alcohol at different rates. For example, muscle tissue absorbs alcohol more rapidly than fat tissue. Since women usually have more body fat than men, they would experience a more profound effect from the same amount of alcohol than their male counterparts.

Older people also have lost some of their muscle tissue and this decreases their ability to break down alcohol.

Another physical factor is body size. A smaller person feels the intoxicating effects of alcohol more rapidly than a larger person. Additionally, since each person has a different metabolic rate, this can be another factor influencing alcohol absorption.

Other variables can influence the rate of alcohol absorption. Carbonated alcoholic beverages or mixers are rapidly absorbed. These include champagne, sparkling wines, wine coolers, or soft drinks mixed with alcohol. Drinks with a higher concentration of alcohol are also problematic. These include drinks with two or more types of alcohol, such as margaritas, Black Russians, and similar cocktails.

Older people may be taking medications that can hasten the effects of alcohol. Use of aspirin products can increase intoxication by interfering with the breakdown of alcohol.

Consuming alcohol on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster, as is the ingestion of hot drinks with alcohol such as hot rum drinks or specialty coffee drinks.

Given the prevalence of alcohol and its potentially damaging impact on our lives I reckon you can’t know too much about the impact it is having on our bodies. Add in Christmas and the increased availability of alcohol over the summer holidays, there is the potential for alcohol to spoil the fun.

Keep asking great questions …

Donald Rhodes5

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