Alcohol & ageing

Grey hairs, wrinkles and the middle-age spread will come to us all – as will worse hangovers. As part of the ageing process our bodies no longer process alcohol so well. One reason for this is having more body fat, which is less able to breakdown alcohol.

Topics on this page:

  1. Alcohol and the brain
  2. Alcohol and mental health
  3. Medication and alcohol
  4. Life changes
  5. Breast cancer
  6. Menopause

Alcohol and the brain

As anyone who has ever had an alcoholic drink will know, alcohol can make you chattier, more relaxed, but also less coherent. It slows your mental and physical reactions and reduces your ability to think, reason and remember. That’s why it’s never a good idea to have alcohol before undertaking any potentially dangerous task – including driving, of course.

These short-term symptoms generally pass once the effects of the alcohol wear off, but long-term heavy drinking can bring about serious changes in our brains.

Dr Julia Lewis, a Consultant Psychiatrist from Aneurin Bevan University Health Board in Wales gives a summary of how alcohol affects the brain.

Alcohol and mental health

As well as physically harming the brain, overuse of alcohol can also have an impact on our mental health. It can lead to low mood and anxiety and worsen the symptoms of other pre-existing mental health problems. Use of alcohol to manage the symptoms of mental ill-health can often mask underlying problems, meaning they are not properly addressed.

Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD)

Alcohol Related Brain Damage is an umbrella term covering several different brain conditions directly linked to excessive drinking. Most of these conditions impact on the sufferer’s memory and thinking. Research suggests that around 35% of dependent drinkers have some form of ARBD.

Dr Julia Lewis, again, explaining the symptoms of ARBD.

To view more videos with Dr Julia Lewis explaining how alcohol affects the brain and where to get help, please follow the link to YouTube here.

To find out more about ARBD and how alcohol impacts the brain, Alcohol Change UK provide many useful guides and resources on their website here.

To increase your knowledge and awareness of ARBD we also have two E-Learning courses available for FREE on the BAROD website here.

You can also view and download our Alcohol and the brain factsheets in English and Welsh.

Medication and alcohol

The effects of mixing alcohol and medicines – prescribed or from the chemist – can be unpredictable. Potential side-effects at any age include drowsiness, dizziness and breathing difficulties, but the risks are even more pronounced for people as they get older, as they are more likely than most to be taking multiple medications. Also the ageing process can affect the way our bodies break down both drugs and alcohol.

Dr. Julia Lewis, a Consultant Psychiatrist from Aneurin Bevan University Health Board in Wales gives a summary of key medications you may be prescribed and how these can interact with medication.

Reading the label

The label on your medicine bottles and boxes may include warning labels signalling that you should avoid drinking alcohol while taking them.

Mixing your medications with alcohol may stop the medications working as they’re supposed to, and in some cases can be harmful. Take care to read the side-effects listed on your medication. Some of these side-effects could be further complicated when you drink alcohol.

Forgetting to take medication

Additionally, when under the influence of alcohol, you could find yourself forgetting when to take your medicine, how much to take or if you have already taken your daily dose.

To give your medications the best chance of effectiveness, avoid mixing them with alcohol. Always discuss your medication with your GP or pharmacist.

Life changes

For many of us changes in our life are cause for celebration such as retirement or the children leaving home. For some this can lead to a feeling of loss. Life changes can be made even tougher if we experience bereavement or if we become a carer. These are just some of the reasons people may find they drink more than they did before.

Home drinking

It’s now much more common to drink at home rather than the local pub. When people drink at home it’s easy to be much more generous with measures when pouring your drink, making it easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Learning more about how much you’re drinking or using a unit measure is a simple way to keep track.

It’s often the case that someone has been drinking too much for years, but as they age older this starts to have a more serious effect on many aspects of their lives.

Underlying issues

Additionally, sometimes alcohol can mask or hide other underlying health issues that you or your doctor might not be aware of. Cutting back can increase your chance of getting the right medical advice and support. Alcohol can also affect your medication.

Breast cancer

Alcohol is known to cause seven types of cancer, including breast cancer, mouth cancer and liver cancer.

Breast cancer is the fourth biggest cause of cancer deaths in the UK, and is by far the most common cancer in women.

According to Breast Cancer Now, breast cancer is thought to be caused by a combination of our genes, lifestyle choices and the surrounding environment.

One of the biggest risk factors is age. At least four out of five breast cancers occur in women over 50. Read more about how alcohol impacts breast cancer.