Heavy drinking is never good for anyone. But alcohol consumption may be even more troublesome for older people than for teens, resulting in greater impairment in coordination, learning and memory, according to a study by Baylor University.
Researchers say the study's findings are important for a population that is aging worldwide at an unprecedented rate and that includes baby boomers as they turn into senior citizens. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, people 65 and older will account for 20 percent of the U.S. population by the year 2030.
"Health implications such as falls, accidents and poor medicine-taking are pretty easy to conclude," said Dr. Douglas B. Matthews, senior author of the paper, published online last week in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
In the United States, as many as 13 percent of men and 8 percent of women over age 65 take part in risky drinking behavior, with an estimated 1 to 3 percent of them believed to be seriously abusing alcohol, according to prior research.
Studies have shown that aging can reduce the body’s ability to adapt to alcohol, according to the National Institutes Of Health. Indeed, older adults reach higher blood levels of alcohol even when consuming the same number of drinks as younger people. This is because, as one grows older, the amount of water in the body is decreased and alcohol becomes more concentrated. But even at the same blood alcohol level, older people may feel the effects of drinking more dramatically than younger people.
Although previous research has shown that alcohol can impact older people more than younger people, understanding the neurobiology underlying that increased sensitivity in the aged has been restricted by the lack of an adequate animal model, said Matthews, a research scientist in psychology and neuroscience.
The Baylor research, the first of its kind, established a baseline of the acute effects of alcohol in older populations, which can assist future research into neurobiology and in determining the effect of prolonged alcohol abuse, according to a press release.
The experiment included adult and aged rats (at least 18 months old), Matthews said. It showed a dramatic increase in ethanol-induced ataxia, which is a lack of muscle coordination.
"We know a lot of neurobiological changes occur during aging which underlie age-related cognitive and behavioral deficits. It's reasonable to suspect a significant interaction exists between age-related and alcohol-induced effects in the brain," said Dr. Jim Diaz-Granados, a study co-author.
"Our hope would be that further findings in this area will serve as a basis to educate the public regarding the risks and provide insights in the clinic," Diaz-Granados said.