Alcohol, liver damage & kidney problems in older adults

Lesley Dobson / 09 December 2014

Find out why alcohol affects our bodies differently as we age.



It may not be what you want to hear, but as we get older, our bodies find it harder to do some of the things that used to come naturally. Coping with alcohol is one of them - we break down alcohol more slowly as we age. And as a result, our bodies become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, with poor results for our health.

“Drinking alcohol affects us more as we grow older – it can increase our bad cholesterol levels, which can fur up our arteries, giving us high blood pressure. This can affect your heart, exacerbate existing heart disease and increase your risk of stroke,” explains Dietitian Nicole Rothband, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

And the effects of alcohol don’t stop there. “Drinking dehydrates us, and older people tend not to feel thirst as much as younger people do, and tend not to recognise the signs of dehydration,” explains Nicole. “This means that they may be dehydrated before they start drinking, and so may drink more alcohol to quench their thirst.”

Related: Learn more about dehydration symptoms and strategies for staying hydrated

Kidney problems

Having a UTI can make you quite unwell, and the infection can make you feel very confused. When caught early, UTIs are treated with a course of antibiotics. However, in more serious cases they can result in a hospital stay, and intravenous antibiotics (delivered through a tube to one of your veins).

Related: Find out more about UTIs

“Alcohol affects your whole system,” says Nicole. “As we grow older our immune systems aren’t as strong as they were in our twenties and thirties. That means that one health problem can lead to another, then another.”

Related: 10 ways to boost your immune system

The general rule is that it takes about an hour for your body to process one unit of alcohol so that it has all been removed from your bloodstream. 

This is likely to vary from person to person, depending partly on your size, your state of health and your sex. Women’s bodies react differently to alcohol – they feel the effects more than men, even if they weigh the same and drink the same amount. While there aren’t exact figures, it’s likely that women will, on average, take longer to process a unit of alcohol than men.

Related: Read our alcohol myth buster to find out how much you really know about alcohol

Liver damage

Our bodies change with age. We lose muscle, gain fat, and our kidneys and liver are likely to be less efficient than they were. Our brains also have an altered response to alcohol, so it affects our brains more quickly than when we were younger. As a result of these changes, our bodies have a lower tolerance to alcohol. So, whether you’re having a glass of wine at home, or a pint with friends, remember to treat your body gently.

Tip It’s important to drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids such as water, tea, herbal tea, milk and fizzy drinks, for instance, to keep yourself well hydrated. And if you know you’re going to a dinner or party where you’ll be served alcohol, make sure you drink plenty of water or other hydrating fluids before you go out, and in between alcoholic drinks.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.