At a certain decade in life, many of us lose the enzyme to metabolize alcohol (alcohol dehydrogenase).
“Drink in moderation” is advice we hear often, but as most people can attest to after a booze-filled holiday season, it isn’t easy to stick to.
When we can stick to moderate drinking, however, we usually feel pretty good about ourselves.
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women. That means if we have a glass of wine after work every day, we’re not doing much harm to our bodies and brains, right? That depends.
Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, a geriatrician and dementia expert, tells HuffPost that the way alcohol impacts the body will vary based on your age. If your 2024 goals include plans to drink in moderation, here’s what she wants you to know.
How 1-2 Alcoholic Drinks Per Day Impact The Body In Your 20s, 30s And 40s
Your 20s, Landsverk says, are a resilient time for the body — which is probably why hangovers aren’t nearly as bad during that decade. “The liver and brain have the most resilience during that time,” she said. “The frontal lobes (reasoning, and judgment) are not quite developed. One is more likely to be open to drinking more or taking more risks, and this can set habits that will cause problems down the line.”
You probably won’t notice a huge difference as you head into your 30s as long as you’re drinking moderately, but it’s important to keep your overall health in mind. “Ask yourself: How is your health otherwise? Obesity, which is epidemic in America, increases the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver,” Landsverk said. “Alcohol increases the risk of liver disease and scarring (cirrhosis). As a geriatrician, I would say a glass or two a week is fine. Some doctors say one drink a day is fine, but it is also neurotoxic and that can catch up with you.”
In your 40s, more health risks begin to pop up, Landsverk explains. “Obesity, diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol all increase the risk for heart attacks, strokes and small stroke dementia,” she said. If you’re living with any of these conditions, even a small amount of alcohol can further increase your risk of events like heart attacks or strokes, so keep that in mind.
How 1-2 Alcoholic Drinks Impact The Body In Your 50s And 60s
Once you hit your 50s, Landsverk says, even moderate drinking can wreak havoc on the body. “Alcohol, besides the vascular damage and dementia risks, increases the risk of breast cancer, esophageal cancer and liver cancer (after disease),” she said. Because cancer risk drastically increases as we age, adding any amount of alcohol into the mix will only further increase that risk. “Plus, as we age, good sleep is more elusive,” Landsverk added. “Substances like caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol all hinder sleep”
In your 60s, you’ll likely begin to feel the effects of moderate drinking on your body. “I can speak from experience: This is the age when tolerance may decrease dramatically,” Landsverk said. “I am healthy. I can ski or swim a mile, but a glass of wine makes me feel ill and slow the next day.”
This, she says, is because older people are more likely to lose the enzyme to metabolize alcohol (alcohol dehydrogenase). “At this point, I can tolerate about one glass a week,” Landsverk noted. “If I had it daily, I would feel sick with just one glass a day. Older people have less reserve in the brain, liver and kidneys. The damage to the brain from even one glass a day is worse [when you’re over 60].”
Landsverk suggests that you think of alcoholic beverages like candy bars. “They’re nice with some meals, but they can increase your weight and blood sugar, and over decades adds to cancer risk and chronic illnesses that can lead to poor health.”
If you want to stay as healthy as possible and feel your best as you age, do you have to give up alcohol completely? No, Landsverk emphasizes, and it’s important to remember to remember that other factors influence the impact alcohol has on your health and well-being, such as if you’re living with a disease like obesity or hypertension.
If you’re older and in generally good health, you shouldn’t worry too much about the occasional alcoholic beverage. That’s certainly the case for Landsverk. “I have decided that a glass of wine with a nice meal is worth it,” she said. “But not every night.”