A recent study suggests older Americans are seeking alcohol addiction treatment in greater numbers. Meanwhile, other 2022-published studies have shown that even moderate alcohol consumption may not be good for older Americans’ health (contrary to the old belief that alcoholic beverages may have cardiovascular benefits). Still, other studies have shown that alcohol is a leading cause of death among young people. In fact, the studies suggest alcohol is the #1 cause of death for men aged 15-49.
The conclusion? There is no age at which drinking alcohol is good for you, and rather than Americans shooting for “moderate” alcohol consumption, they should instead shift to severely limiting alcohol consumption or abstaining from it completely.
There is simply no age bracket in which alcohol consumption benefits the human body. For older people, alcohol consumption can lead to falls, dehydration, dementia, and other health problems. For younger people, alcohol consumption can quickly lead to alcohol misuse, which can cause car accidents, alcohol poisoning, violent encounters, and behavior changes (binge drinking, addiction).
Let’s take a look at several recent studies that arrived at these conclusions:
The rate at which older Americans have sought treatment for alcohol and drug abuse rose sharply between 2000 and 2017. In 2000, the rate of older Americans seeking help was 8.8 for every 1,000. But by 2017, that figure had almost doubled to 15.1 for every 1,000. Meanwhile, treatment admissions for young people barely increased over this period. While the study does not necessarily suggest that more older adults are using alcohol than in previous years, it does indicate that significantly more older adults now realize they have a drinking problem and are thus seeking help.1
Just as the above findings came out, another research paper was published, challenging the notion that moderate alcohol consumption is “good” for the heart. The study examined a large data set of some 371,463 individuals, and it found that any degree of alcohol consumption was associated with poorer cardiovascular outcomes than individuals in the data set who did not drink alcohol at all.2
“The findings affirm that alcohol intake should not be recommended to improve cardiovascular health; rather, that reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce cardiovascular risk in all individuals…”
The researchers found that the small group of older Americans who drank in moderation and had good cardiovascular outcomes were likely experiencing such outcomes due to active lifestyles, not due to their alcohol consumption. To that point, senior study author Dr. Krishna G. Aragam said, “The findings affirm that alcohol intake should not be recommended to improve cardiovascular health; rather, that reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce cardiovascular risk in all individuals, albeit to different extents based on one’s current level of consumption.” It seems alcohol consumption is not beneficial for older adults, yet it does pose some health risks.3
Meanwhile, another study found that alcohol consumption is a prominent cause of health issues, accidents, injuries, and preventable deaths on the younger side of the age spectrum. In fact, among individuals ages 15 to 49, alcohol misuse is the leading cause of disability.4
Yet another study analyzed the connection between alcohol consumption and other health and disease burdens. According to the findings, alcohol contributed to over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions. These conditions ranged from liver disease to road injuries, violence, several cancers, various cardiovascular diseases, incidences of suicide, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.5
Beyond the various harms attendant to alcohol consumption by age, some new research suggests alcohol consumption for any age demographic can be harmful. Research from a group of scientists at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom discovered higher brain iron levels in people who drank alcohol (even in moderation) compared to people who did not drink.6 Quoting lead researcher Dr. Anya Topiwala, “Even small amounts of alcohol, within current alcohol guidelines, could harm your brain.” The researchers further asserted that while the human brain does require some trace minerals of iron to function normally, even a slight excess of iron in the brain can quickly become toxic.7
The above-cited studies are only a sampling from the wealth of recently published research that suggests even consuming alcohol “in moderation” can have negative health impacts. Further, all age demographics are at risk for such negative impacts, and it seems alcohol is never a healthy choice, regardless of age.
Real World Harm from Alcohol Consumption
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that, while increasing evidence shows some harm in moderate drinking, most alcohol-related harm still comes from alcohol misuse. One should remember that alcohol misuse is always a risk factor for someone who drinks alcohol, even if they believe they have full control of their drinking.8
The NIAAA has reported that alcohol misuse in the U.S. has reached epidemic-level proportions, with at least 6% of American adults (14.5 million people) addicted to alcohol. Further, at least 95,000 die from alcohol-related causes yearly. Fewer than 10% of people who struggle with alcohol abuse receive treatment or professional help for it, leaving them to fend for themselves in the midst of life-threatening addiction.
Beyond the 95,000 annual deaths (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the death toll closer to 140,000), alcohol abuse is also the leading cause of at least 18% of ER visits. It’s also a cause of liver disease, heart disease, stroke, cirrhosis, upper aerodigestive tract cancers, liver cancer, supraventricular cardiac dysrhythmia, breast cancer, and hypertension. Finally, alcohol consumption is responsible for at least 10,000 vehicle fatalities yearly, almost one-third of all traffic deaths.9
Abstaining from Alcohol is the Best Choice
All of the evidence points in one direction. Alcohol misuse is known to be harmful and dangerous, yet even “moderate” alcohol consumption is now proven to create harm and pose risks to users. People who cannot control their drinking should seek help from qualified alcohol addiction treatment centers. Those who consume alcohol “socially” should strongly consider removing alcohol from their diet. It has no health benefits but a long list of potential risks.
JCP. “Increased Admissions of Older Adults to Substance Use Treatment Facilities and Associated Changes in Admission Characteristics, 2000–2017." Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2022. psychiatrist.com ↩︎
PLOS. “Associations between moderate alcohol consumption, brain iron, and cognition in U.K. Biobank participants: Observational and mendelian randomization analyses.” Public Library of Science, 2022. journals.plos.org ↩︎