Alcohol and the way you age
The amount of alcohol we consume and its correlation with health outcomes is an interesting topic. At one end of the spectrum, we have alcoholism and binge drinking, whilst at the other we see Mediterranean and Continental European countries having an aperitif and perhaps a glass of red wine over a long lunch with friends and family.
So, can drinking alcohol have a positive impact on the way we age? Is there a happy medium? Perhaps, it depends on one’s overall lifestyle habits, outlook and health. In Greg Macpherson’s book, Harnessing the Nine Hallmarks of Aging to live your healthiest life, he looks at the research into the nine lifestyle factors adopted by people living in the Blue Zones.
The Blue Zones are regions of the world identified by the National Geographic magazine, where people seemed to live longer than average and have the highest percentage on centenarians.
The nine lifestyle factors included consistent movement, a sense of purpose and belonging, putting their families and loved ones first, supportive and healthy social circles, stress management practices, a predominantly plant-based diet and stopping eating before full and… drinking alcohol moderately and regularly (e.g. one to two small glasses daily with friends over a meal).
Studies into alcohol consumption alone are inconclusive, which may in large be since it is often considered in silo, rather than as part of the whole picture. However, a review of 22 studies concluded that light to moderate drinking (up to 1-2 units per day) may contribute to healthy ageing.
Conversely, several studies link an increase in the onset and severity of age-related diseases, to alcohol consumption. Age related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and lowered immunity are associated with ‘inflamm‐aging’ - a term used to describe low-grade systemic inflammation. Drinking any amount of alcohol affects our immunity, and this is likely to pose more of a concern as we age and our ability to overcome infections is reduced. It is estimated that over 40% of adults over the age of 65 drink alcohol, and more than 10% of this group drink more than the recommended guidelines. Drinking in excess has been associated with earlier signs and symptoms of ageing and onset of age-related conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
At a cellular level, telomeres are protective caps that protect the end of our chromosomes, and their length reduces as we age. Shortening of telomeres is considered one of the Nine Hallmarks of aging.
One of the key determinants of the way we age is the accumulation of oxidative stress. This leads to ‘inflamm-aging’ and speeds up the damage to our cells, leading to telomere shortening and dysfunction.
A recent study found that heavy drinkers had shorter telomeres than healthy controls. However, the study did not determine how the amount of alcohol correlated to the telomere damage. The researchers hypothesised that this could be because different people metabolise alcohol at different levels. Or in other words, our genetics, the way we live (e.g. diet and lifestyle) and our exposure to toxins and pollutants, affects the way our liver processes alcohol. In a person with an optimally functioning liver, the effects of oxidative stress and associated cellular damage are reduced.
In summary, the way alcohol affects the way we age varies from person to person, depending on our genetics and the way we live. If you are living a healthy lifestyle, which includes some or all of the nine lifestyle factors exhibited by those living in the Blue Zones, then the odd glass or two could contribute positively to your health. However, together these studies show that drinking in moderation is better for your health than overindulging. This becomes more important especially as we get older.
Suzy Walsh BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ is a Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
 Macpherson, G. (2021). Harnessing the Nine Hallmarks of Aging: To Live Your Healthiest Life’. Simon & Schuster. Greg Macpherson
 Daskalopoulou, C., Stubbs, B., Kralj, C., Koukounari, A., Prince, M., & Prina, A. M. (2018). Associations of smoking and alcohol consumption with healthy ageing: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. BMJ Open, 8(4), e019540. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019540
 World Health Organization (2018) Global status report on alcohol and health 2018,. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. Cataloguing-inpublication. World Health Organization, Geneva
 Martins de Carvalho L, Wiers CE, Manza P, Sun H, Schwandt M, Wang GJ, Grassi-Oliveira R, Godard ALB, Volkow ND. Effect of alcohol use disorder on cellular aging. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2019 Nov;236(11):3245-3255. doi: 10.1007/s00213-019-05281-5. Epub 2019 Jun 3. PMID: 31161452.