Alcohol and Aging Bodies

Alcohol is Poison: At Least That’s What Some Experts Are Saying | Healthy Aging Series: S8, E8

Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi was an alcoholic, and his alcoholism contributed to the loss of his health, the loss of a career, and eventually contributed to a shortened life. 

We looked at his life in a previous blog. I want to expand this topic of alcohol and aging and see what light the Harvard Grant Study sheds on it. Later this year, I will expand the topic of alcohol and aging by looking at the effects of alcohol on the brain, on sleep, and on our aging body. 

What did the researchers from this study discover about the effects of alcohol on aging when they looked at the men of the Harvard Grant Study? Let me first state that the study did not find significant issues with social drinkers. In fact, 72% of the social drinkers lived to be 80 years old, but there were two lessons that we learned from the effects of alcohol abuse.

Two Lessons on Alcoholism and Aging

Lesson One: Alcohol prematurely ages the body.

Of the 54 identified alcoholics in the study 19 or 35% were dead at 70 and only three lived or were alive at 80. “Their average lifespan,” Vaillant writes, “had been 17 years shorter than those of their social, drinking study peers.” 

I listen frequently to a podcast called “The Huberman Lab.” In a recent episode, Dr. Huberman, a neurologist, I asked the question: What does alcohol do to your body, Brain, and Heart. I did not enjoy this episode because throughout the episode, he referred several times to alcohol as a poison. But as I’ve reflected on the podcast, and as I’ve investigated the research, and I’ve concluded that he is right. Alcohol is a poison. There I said it. And again. Alcohol is a poison. Here’s what researchers say:

First, if you only consume one or two drinks daily, you will lose white and gray matter in your brain as you age. 

Second, consuming alcohol interferes with the brain-gut axis. We are only beginning to understand the role of the gut microbiome, but more and more evidence suggests that the relationship between the brain and gut is very important for our overall well-being. How does alcohol affect the gut? Alcohol consumption alters various chemical processes in our bodies, and creates a disharmony between our internal systems, including our brain  as well as our nervous system, and digestive track.

Third, alcohol affects our sleep architecture. I’ll speak more about this in upcoming blogs.

Forth, consuming alcohol increases our sleeping heart rate. I have been meticulous about following my heart rate over the past few months. I’ve been on an alcohol sabbatical and have noticed a dramatic decrease in my resting heart rate. Even one drink affects my sleeping heart rate.

Lesson Two: Alcoholism and Aging Marriages.

It’s difficult to determine a single cause for divorce. Marriages and long-term relationships are complicated and the reasons they fail are numerous. Add to that, the issues of aging, religion, and economics. They are complicated. The Harvard Grant Study looked at the effects of alcohol abuse on marriages. Of the 59 divorces that occurred throughout the study, 33 marriages or 57% occurred when at least one spouse was abusing alcohol. Vaillant writes, “It looks very much as though alcoholism within marriages often caused not only the divorce, but also caused failed relationships, poor coping styles, and evidence of a shaky mental health.“

Alcoholics Anonymous, The Big Book

If you want to understand the effects that alcoholism has on relationships and on people’s lives, I suggest reading Alcoholics Anonymous or what has been called the Big book. I reread it again this week. It gives you a glimpse into the life and death struggles that alcoholics have with alcohol. 

Vaillant writes, “Prospective study has consistently shown alcoholism to be the cause, not the result, of many personal and social problem. Alcoholism is the cause, not the result, of unhappy marriages. Alcoholism is the cause of many deaths, too, and not only through liver cirrhosis and moto vehicle accidents -suicides, homicides, cancer, heart disease, and depressed immune system can all be chalked up to this serial killer.”

Whole 30 Diet and Alcohol

I started the whole 30 diet the week before Christmas. If you’re not familiar with this diet, it involves not drinking alcohol during that 30-day period. As I write this blog, I’ve completed five weeks and I’ve lost 15 pounds. There are other factors that helped to include: one hour a day of exercise. No sugar added to any food. No grains. No dairy. And time restricted eating which is also called. Intermittent fasting. I’ve lost weight and feel better. Is it because of abstain from alcohol? Maybe. I’m not sure how to interpret the data, but my hypothesis is, most likely.  I recently listened to a podcast that discussed the topic of dopamine and how chronic alcohol use can affect our dopamine levels, which, of course affects our mood. Therefore, I’m going to extend my whole 30 lifestyle through the rest of this year at least the abstaining from alcohol part. I’ll consider this a one-year sabbatical from alcohol. I’ll share my progress and results in upcoming blogs.

To see more entries in the Healthy Aging series, click here.