Most of us at this blog are old enough to remember when everyone smoked cigarettes. Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, William Powell, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy – all the cool kids back in those days smoked and they also drank. A lot. At least they did so in their movies.
A lot of us, as we came of age, followed the lead of our favorite screen actors - the social media of the day where we could find out what was chic, fashionable and, as far as it was a concept then, cutting edge.
Even so, it was a surprise to me recently when I watched Revolutionary Road, a movie set in 1950s suburbia starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, how much drinking was going on.
It reminded me of my parents as I was growing up in that decade. So much was alcohol a part of their lives that by age 10 or eleven I was expert, thanks to my dad's tutelage, at making a proper cocktail. Martini, manhattan, old fashioned, whiskey sour, gibson, gimlet, gin and tonic – I knew how to mix all the popular alcoholic concoctions of the era.
When I was older, I realized my mother was an alcoholic. She worked full time all her adult life, never drank during the day but made up for it evenings and weekends. She often said she wasn't an alcoholic because unlike real ones, she remembered to eat.
Yeah. Right, mom.
For a long time I thought my father was alcoholic too but over time I came to believe that he drank to keep up with mom. My point is that I was primed for alcohol to be as big a part of my life as it was for my parents and a couple of other relatives who may have regularly abused it.
Apparently, however, I didn't inherit the gene - if that's what it is - or the habit. Certainly I drink, always have, but appropriately if you don't count a few young-and-stupid benders. And it has always been about being social for me; it never occurs to me to drink when I'm alone.
Nowadays, it's even less and that's just as well. In old age, we cannot drink as much or as frequently as we could when we were younger. A couple of years ago, U.S. News and World Report made a list of how alcohol affects older bodies. A sampling, paraphrased:
• Tolerance for alcohol declines over time so your blood alchohol content can be higher even if you drink the same amount as before.
• Even moderate drinking can affect liver function leading to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
• Chronic conditions are complicated by alcohol. According to the American Diabetes Association, alcohol can cause dangerously low blood sugar up to 24 hours after drinking.
• Alcohol can interfere with prescription and over-the-counter medications.
• Alcohol dehydrates the body and can disrupt sleep.
In addition, drinking can impair judgment, coordination and reaction time increasing the risk of falls, household accidents and car crashes. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health:
”In older adults, too much alcohol can lead to balance problems and falls, which can result in hip or arm fractures and other injuries...Studies show that the rate of hip fractures in older adults increases with alcohol use.”
All that is not to say there isn't an upside to drinking. A few years ago, CNN reported on a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology which
”...found that healthy seniors who consume light to moderate amounts of alcohol reduce their odds of developing physical disabilities or dying in the next five years by 23 percent, compared with either heavy drinkers or those who abstain.
Medical News Today (MNT) explained that when studies “report harm associated with consuming alcohol, they nearly always refer to binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or alcoholism.” Earlier this year, MNT listed benefits of moderate drinking on elders culled from a variety of studies:
”A study published in the journal Strokefound that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption may lower the risk of stroke in women. The study included self-reported data about the drinking habits of 83,578 female participants of the Nurses' Health Study.
“In a study of 2,683 men and 2,822 women aged between 55 and 80 years, Spanish researchers found that regular, moderate wine drinking might reduce the risk of developing depression, while heavy drinking increases the risk. The participants mostly followed a Mediterranean diet and drank wine in a social context, with family and friends.
“An Italian review of studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that moderate wine and beer consumption reduced the risk of cardiovascular events, but spirits did not.
“Investigators at University College in London reported in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health that moderate drinkers who followed a healthful lifestyle were more likely to see a protective effect on the heart, compared with moderate drinkers who smoked or had a poor diet.
With or without all these studies, I don't have any plans to cut alcohol out of my life. It seems to me that barring negative interactions with disease, conditions and/or medications, moderate drinking is just fine for us old folks if we are so inclined.
Experts have differing definitions of moderate drinking but this one, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines it for people 65 and older as “no more than three drinks in a given day and seven drinks in a week.”
The next question, of course, is how is a standard drink measured. Here's a chart from the NIH:
Next week: elders and cannabis.