FAQs: How Does Alcoholism Affect People?
Is It Safe to Drink During Pregnancy?
No, alcohol can harm the baby of a mother who drinks during pregnancy. Although the highest risk is to babies whose mothers drink heavily, it is not clear yet whether there is any completely safe level of alcohol during pregnancy.
Does Alcohol Affect Older People Differently?
Alcohol's effects do vary with age. Slower reaction times, problems with hearing and seeing, and a lower tolerance to alcohol's effects put older people at higher risk for falls, car crashes and other types of injuries that may result from drinking.
Older people also tend to take more medicines than younger people. Mixing alcohol with over-the-counter or prescription medications can be very dangerous, even fatal. (See "When taking medications, must you stop drinking?" for more information.) In addition, alcohol can make many of the medical conditions common in older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, more serious. Physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel "high" even after drinking only small amounts of alcohol. So even if there is no medical reason to avoid alcohol, older men and women should limit themselves to one drink per day.
Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently?
Yes, alcohol affects women differently than men. Women become more impaired than men do after drinking the same amount of alcohol, even when differences in body weight are taken into account. This is because women's bodies have less water than men's bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol becomes more highly concentrated in a woman's body than in a man's.
In addition, chronic alcohol abuse takes a heavier physical toll on women than on men. Alcohol dependency and related medical problems, such as brain, heart and liver damage, progress more rapidly in women than in men.
Is Alcohol Good for Your Heart?
Studies have shown that moderate drinkers are less likely to die from one form of heart disease than are people who do not drink any alcohol or who drink more. If you are a nondrinker, however, you should not start drinking solely to benefit your heart. You can guard against heart disease by exercising and eating foods that are low in fat. And if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, have been diagnosed as alcoholic or have another medical condition that could make alcohol use harmful, you should not drink.
If you can safely drink alcohol and you choose to drink, do so in moderation. Heavy drinking can actually increase the risk of heart failure, stroke and high blood pressure, as well as cause many other medical problems, such as liver cirrhosis.
When Taking Medications, Must You Stop Drinking?
Possibly. More than 150 medications interact harmfully with alcohol. These interactions may result in increased risk of illness, injury and even death. Alcohol's effects are heightened by medicines that depress the central nervous system, such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and some painkillers. If you are taking any over-the-counter or prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can safely drink alcohol.