Alcohol and the Aging Process

A Bad Mix

Alcohol is linked to age in lots of ways. You have to be old enough to drink it legally, and once you are, it can age you faster than normal. Heavy drinking can have a direct effect on certain parts of your body and on your mental health as you get older. And it can have some unhealthy indirect effects, as well.

It Can Dehydrate You

As you get older, you have less water in your body and -- for reasons that aren’t quite clear --you also feel thirsty less often. That makes seniors more likely to be dehydrated. Drinking alcohol can pull more water out of your body and make your chances of dehydration even higher.

It Can Dry Your Skin

Our skin gets thinner and drier as we age. It’s a natural process called intrinsic aging, and it’s something you can’t control. Extrinsic aging is when your skin ages faster than it should because of your environment and how you live. That’s where alcohol comes in -- it dehydrates you and dries out your skin. You can slow that down by drinking less.

It Can Make Vital Organs Weaker

Alcohol can affect the way some vital organs work and make them age faster. While heavy drinkers are more likely to have cirrhosis (permanent damage to your liver)even moderate drinking can lead to problems like fatty liver disease. It also can make it harder for your kidneys to do their thing.

It Can Slow Your Brain

Every alcoholic drink goes “straight to your head,” or at least to your brain. Heavy drinking over a long time can shrink brain cells and lead to alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) and certain types of dementia. Symptoms of that include lack of judgment, organization, or emotional control, trouble staying focused, and anger issues.

It Can Weaken Your Immune System

Alcohol can affect the way your body fights off life-threatening illnesses like tuberculosis or pneumonia. This can be especially serious for older people. Researchers are also studying the possibility that alcoholic liver disease might be caused, at least in part, by your immune system attacking healthy body tissues.

It Can Affect Your Heart

Red wine has antioxidants called polyphenols that may help your cholesterol level and protect your blood vessels. If you drink it in moderation (about one glass a day), some studies show that it might be good for your heart. But too much can lead to an abnormal heartbeat and high blood pressure. So if you don’t drink, this isn’t a good reason to start.

It Hits You Faster

People who drink may notice that they’re “feeling no pain” sooner as they get older. That’s mainly because our bodies gain fat and lose muscle in our senior years and it takes longer for us to break down alcohol and get it out of our system. It also can make hangovers last longer.

It Can Complicate Things

Alcohol may not only make you more likely to get sick as you age, it also can make common medical problems worse. Studies show that heavy drinkers can have a harder time with things like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss, and certain mood disorders.

It Can Change How Your Meds Work

The older you get, the longer alcohol stays in your system. So it’s more likely to be there when you take medicine.  And alcohol can affect the way your meds work. It can also lead to serious side effects.

For example, drinking alcohol when you take aspirin can raise your chances of stomach problems or internal bleeding. Mixing it with certain sleeping pills, pain medications, or anxiety drugs can be life-threatening.

It Can Make You More Likely to Fall

Broken bones from a stumble are a serious health issue for seniors. Heavy drinking can make them even more likely. It’s because alcohol can affect your balance and sense of judgment. Over time, it also can damage the cerebellum, the area in your brain that handles balance and coordination.

It Can Keep You Up at Night

The idea of having a drink to relax before bedtime may not be a good one, especially as you get older. Instead of lulling you into a restful night, alcohol can actually keep you from getting to sleep and lead to restless slumber. That can be particularly hard on seniors, who are already more likely to wake up often or have a sleep disorder like insomnia.

You Can Drink, But ...

As with most things, moderation is key. People older than 65 who don’t take any medications should average no more than one drink a day (seven per week) and have no more than three at one sitting. (A drink is one 12-ounce can or bottle of beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5-ounce shot of an 80-proof or less liquor.) Talk with your doctor to find out what’s right for you.

Are probiotic supplements for your gut really good for you?


More research highlights the importance of having a robust gut microbiome — the collection of good bacteria that live in our digestive systems.

Called probiotics, these good bacteria help break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent bacteria that cause illness from getting a foothold and bolster immunity. Some studies suggest that as we get older, the number and variety of good bacteria in our bodies decline. So taking probiotic supplements to replenish them might seem like a no-brainer.

Indeed, 14 percent of people 55 and older use them, according to a recent survey from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry group. But in doing so, they may be getting ahead of the science.

“It’s been proposed — but not proven — that regular probiotic intake may help prevent this change [with age],” says Emeran A. Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and author of “The Mind-Gut Connection.” “We’re just starting to scratch the surface of this area of research.”

Here’s what we know about the potential impact probiotics may have on our health.

Can they boost health?

“Some strains have been shown to help with GI complaints, some with immune function and some even have been shown to have benefits outside the intestinal tract, such as with vaginal health or eczema,” says Gail Cresci, a Cleveland Clinic researcher who studies the microbiome. But there are few definitive conclusions from the current research.

One of the most common reasons people take probiotics is to help rebuild the microbiome after a course of antibiotics, because the drugs kill good bacteria along with the bad. But there may be a downside, according to a new study published in the journal Cell.

“Surprisingly, our research found that the consumption of probiotics after antibiotics can actually delay the natural restoration of the gut microbiome,” says Eran Elinav, an author of the study and a professor of immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Some experts think that probiotics may need to be personalized to be beneficial.

Another study by Elinav and his colleagues suggests that not everyone’s gut reacts the same way to probiotic pills. They studied samples of microbiomes from antibiotic users before and after they took supplements for four weeks. The good bacteria were found in the digestive tracts of some people. But in others, the bacteria were present only in stool samples, not in their digestive tracts, where they’re thought to be needed to improve health.

Are the pills safe?

Makers of probiotics (and all supplements) don’t have to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their products are safe and effective before they’re marketed.

And a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine sounded an alarm about the lack of scientific proof to support their safety.

“You are taking in live bacteria, so it’s possible that certain people may be vulnerable to infection from it and not able to fight it off,” Cresci says.

While serious side effects are unlikely in healthy people, those who are immune-compromised, elderly or critically ill in particular should consult a doctor before taking these supplements.

The right bacteria from food

“If you eat a diet rich in plant-based and fermented foods, you will be ingesting a variety of microbes,” Mayer says. “And the more you feed them, the greater their abundance and diversity in the gut.” What do they eat? Fiber called prebiotics. Some good sources are artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onions and whole grains.

But with a supplement, you consume the bacteria in isolation, Cresci says.

If you get your good bacteria in fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut, you’ll also get their beneficial byproducts, such as acids and enzymes.