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, 8 (1), 127-41

Alcohol and the Elderly

  • PMID: 1576571

Alcohol and the Elderly

M C Dufour et al. Clin Geriatr Med.


Moderate drinking for the elderly of both genders is no more than one drink per day, where a drink is defined as 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of spirits. Age does not affect the rate of absorption or elimination of alcohol. Lean body mass decreases and adipose tissue increases with age, however, resulting in a corresponding decrease in the volume of total body water. With a smaller volume of distribution, an alcohol dose identical to that administered to a younger individual of the same size and gender will produce a higher blood alcohol concentration in the elderly. Low-dose alcohol stimulates appetite and promoters regular bowel function. In the well-nourished nonalcoholic elderly, the negative impact of alcohol consumption on nutrition is minimal. Alcohol consumption improves mood by increasing feelings of happiness and freedom from care while lessening inhibitions, stress, tension, and depression. Although in the laboratory low-dose alcohol improves certain types of cognitive function in young men, in other types of task performance, alcohol induces impairment, which worsens with age. The effects of alcohol on sleep are primarily detrimental, worsening both insomnia and breathing disturbances during sleep. Although the role of alcohol consumption in mortality from heart disease has not been investigated in the elderly, moderate drinking appears safe. Under some circumstances low-dose alcohol may produce analgesia whereas in others it may worsen pain. The elderly use a significant proportion of both prescription and over-the-counter medication, a large variety of which interact with alcohol. Alcoholic beverage consumption may exacerbate cognitive impairment and dementias of other etiology. Although some studies suggest that moderate use of alcohol by institutionalized senior citizens appears to produce benefits including improved socialization, separation of the effects of the social situation from those specifically attributable to alcohol remains to be accomplished. Older individuals who want to drink, have no medical contraindications, and take no drugs (prescription or over-the-counter) that interact with alcohol, may consider one drink a day to be a prudent level of alcohol consumption. Patients should be counseled to avoid alcohol consumption immediately prior to going to bed in order to avoid sleep disturbances. They also should be cautioned against potential drug-alcohol interactions and told to avoid alcohol ingestion prior to activities such as driving. The decision to recommend a particular level of alcohol consumption in any given patient must, however, be carefully tailored not only to that individual's specific medical needs but to his or her social and environmental circumstances as well.

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