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Things to know about alcohol

Many people drink alcohol. It's part of many customs and traditions. Even so, people may not have some basic information about alcohol, including how it affects people differently and what problems it can cause in the body.

Alcohol and older adults

Alcohol can affect older adults more strongly than younger adults. Older adults:

  • Usually need less alcohol to become drunk (intoxicated) than someone younger.
  • Stay drunk longer.
  • May have vision and hearing problems and slower reaction times. Alcohol can make these problems worse, which means alcohol-related falls, car crashes, and other kinds of accidents are more likely.
  • May be more likely to mix alcohol and medicine because they are more likely to be taking many medicines. Mixing alcohol with many over-the-counter and prescription medicines can be dangerous or fatal.

In older adults, alcohol can trigger health problems or make them worse. These health problems include high blood pressure, ulcers, liver disease, anxiety, sleep problems, and depression.1

Alcohol and women

Drinking has a greater effect on women because they generally weigh less. But this isn't the only reason. Women's bodies have less water than men's bodies. Alcohol mixes with body water, so alcohol is more concentrated and more "powerful" in women than in men. Think of putting a drop of red food coloring in a smaller and larger cup. The water in the smaller cup will be much redder.

Long-term alcohol abuse creates more problems in women than in men. Alcohol dependence and related medical problems, such as brain and liver damage, get worse faster in women than in men.

Drinking during pregnancy makes a miscarriage or fetal alcohol syndrome more likely. A child exposed to alcohol in the womb may have facial changes, such as a small face or narrow eyes; slowed growth; and learning and behavior problems, such as being overactive or having a poor attention span.

Alcohol and your heart

Research shows that people who have 1 or 2 drinks a day are less likely to develop heart disease than people who don't drink any alcohol or who drink larger amounts.

But alcohol also can make heart failure, stroke, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure more likely. If you don't drink now, don't start drinking for your heart. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet will help your heart without the risks of alcohol.

Moderate drinking

You don't have to drink a lot or be an alcoholic to have trouble with alcohol. While one person may be able to handle a drink or two a day, another might not.

If drinking a little alcohol causes you a problem, you need to rethink your drinking. If alcohol causes you to miss work or school or work or school duties, have trouble with your relationships, or get in legal trouble, seek help. Women who are pregnant or people who have a history of alcohol abuse should not drink at all.

Cutting back or stopping on your own

If you have been diagnosed as dependent on alcohol, you probably cannot stop or cut back on your own. It would be best to stop drinking, and you'll probably need help to stop.

If you are not dependent on alcohol, you may be able to cut back on your own, but it's easier and safer to do it with a doctor's help.


  1. Department of Health and Human Services (1998). Substance abuse among older adults. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP), Series 26 (DHHS Publication No. SMA 98-3179). Available online:

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Last Revised January 26, 2010

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 26, 2010
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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