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How Does Alcohol Affect Aging? A Quick Guide to the Damage Caused by Excessive Drinking

Americans are drinking less alcohol than before, according to a 2018 survey. However, the sale of spirits – beer, wine, and liquor – increased by just over 5 percent during the same period.

The industry report also notes that consumers 60 years and older are at least partially responsible for the increase in alcohol sales.

How Does Alcohol Affect Aging?

“One of the growing problems, which is not often discussed in the United States,” Robert Padina, former director of the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, tells U.S. News and World Report, “is with retirees who move to retirement communities or other locations where cocktail hour begins early and often.”

With that in mind, here is a look at how alcohol can wreak havoc on the aging process.

Let’s start with the brain.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Brain volume is responsible for functions like memory and cognitive acuity.

With aging, brain volume naturally shrinks, but alcohol, especially heavy, long-term drinking, can speed up the shrinking process, reports the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA).

What’s worse, heavy drinkers can develop a condition known as alcoholic dementia. The disorder is characterized by lack of muscle coordination, agitation and mental confusion.

There is even a condition known as wet brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome), which is caused by a vitamin B (thiamine) deficiency. People with a long-term history of alcoholism are prone to this disorder because alcohol depletes our natural stores of thiamine.

If a shrinking frontal lobe or an inability to form new memories from wet brain isn’t scary enough, there’s also alcohol’s aging effect on the outward facing body, like the eyes, skin and hair.

Alcohol Ages the Hair, Skin, and Eyes

Beer, wine and liquor are all diuretics, meaning they flush water out of the body and leave a person dehydrated.

After a night of heavy drinking, that nasty headache in the morning is often a result of dehydration.

There is, though, more subtle damage that alcohol induced dehydration is having on the body, like some of the following:

  • Alcohol ages skin faster by depleting stores of collagen that leave the epidermis dry, wrinkled, and puffy. Over time it can lead to permanently red cheeks and purple capillaries, especially around the nose
  • Busted capillaries cause those red, bloodshot eyes by enlarging the tiny vessels on the surface of the eyeball. Excessive drinking can also make you go blind, literally. A condition called alcoholic optic neuritis impairs sight and can result in blindness over time
  • Booze doesn’t leave the scalp alone either. Dehydration affects the hair, in much the same way, leaving it brittle, weak and prone to split ends. Too much alcohol can cause a zinc deficiency too, which is associated with hair loss

Alcohol’s Impact on the Body’s Internal Organs

Let’s see, that’s the brain, skin, eyes and scalp so far, but there’s really no part of the body that alcohol doesn’t damage in some form or fashion. Take the internal organs, for example.

The Liver

The liver takes a big hit from alcohol. Age brings a natural decline in liver function, making it even harder for it to metabolize or flush the alcohol out.

For heavy drinkers, this increases the risk of liver cancer and cirrhosis.

Though there is some evidence that suggests red wine might increase good cholesterol, alcohol in general can lead to high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms.

The Pancreas

Because alcohol has so much sugar in it, abuse is bad for the pancreas, the organ responsible for producing the insulin that breaks sugars down.

Too much sugar from alcohol and the pancreas can’t create enough insulin, a disorder known as diabetes.

Other Aging Risks Associated With Drinking Too Much Alcohol

There are a myriad other issues related to aging and alcohol, such as:

  • Poor sleep health
  • Increased risk of injury due to falls
  • Kidney failure
  • Higher risk of stroke and heart attack
  • Medication interactions
  • Mental health problems
  • Addiction

Too much alcohol is hard on everyone, but most especially older people.

Adopting a healthier lifestyle, drinking less alcohol and more water, taking vitamins and maintaining a good diet will lessen alcohol’s damage.

Stopping drinking altogether, even after years of heavy alcohol consumption, will also allow the body to recover much of its normal function, both physically and mentally.

Make a change, skip out on cocktail hour and see how your body and mind pick up the pace.


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