Elderly at Higher Risk for Acute Alcohol Effects

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Anyone who has tried a shot of liquor knows the sudden onset of “warm tummy” and a bit of unsteadiness that quickly passes – at least with only a single small drink. In the elderly, though, this acute effect of alcohol can be much more significant and even dangerous.

A study out of Baylor University looked at “risky drinking behavior” in those over 65, a demographic that is ballooning as baby boomers become senior citizens. They found a significant impact.

"Health implications such as falls, accidents and poor medicine-taking are pretty easy to conclude," said Douglas B. Matthews, Ph.D., senior author of the paper.

Problems with balance and coordination

The dangerous difference between elderly drinking and drinking in younger people is the level of ethanol-induced ataxia. The common phrase is, “falling down drunk.” Except, in the elderly, the falling down part comes with much less alcohol consumption than in the young.

The problems with balance and coordination aren’t just because of a liver that doesn’t process alcohol as quickly, but is thought to stem from changes in neurobiology as well. Study co-author Jim Diaz-Granados, Ph.D., said:

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.

Study serves as a model

The purpose of the study wasn’t to get old people drunk. In fact, it used rats. The idea is to establish a model that can be used to see how neurobiological changes interact with alcohol. Having an animal model for ataxia based on age will allow researchers to usefully compare data across institutions wanting to study this effect.

What’s a senior citizen in a rat? Turns out to be at least 18 months old. Other animal models use a few months more, but the longer you wait, the longer it takes to do your research. For example, in studying Alzheimer’s, Fischer Rats are allowed to get to the age of 20 months, considered to be the equivalent of 60 to 70-years-old humans.

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