Alcohol and aging add up to accelerated muscle loss

To drink or not to drink?

Thanks to the contradictory research on alcohol and health, it’s a question that’s stumped a lot of us in recent years.

On the plus side, moderate drinking of alcohol (especially wine) has been linked to lower risk of heart failure and diabetes and a healthier gut microbiome.

But on the minus side, alcohol consumption is associated with higher risk of atrial fibrillation, dementia, and seven different types of cancer.

Now, add to that list another condition that can increase your risk of frailty later in life…

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Alcohol can accelerate muscle loss

A U.K. research team took a look at data from nearly 200,000 participants in the UK Biobank between the ages of 37 and 73 years, with most in their 50s and 60s. The researchers studied how much alcohol these participants were drinking and compared it with how much muscle they had.

“Alcohol intake is a major modifiable risk factor for many diseases, so we wanted to find out more about the relationship between drinking and muscle health as we age,” says Professor Ailsa Welch of the University of East Anglia.

Because larger people have more muscle mass, the researchers scaled for body size. They also took into account factors that could influence muscle size, such as protein consumption and physical activity.

When taking all these factors into account, the team found that those who drank a lot of alcohol had a lower amount of skeletal muscle, a condition known as sarcopenia, than those who drank less.

“We saw that it really became a problem when people were drinking 10 or more units a day — which is the equivalent of about a bottle of wine or four or five pints,” says Dr. Jane Skinner of the University of East Anglia.

Skinner adds that because alcohol consumption and muscle mass were measured in people at the same time, the researchers can’t be sure of a causal link. Still, the results indicate it might be a good idea to cut back on the booze.

“We know that losing muscle as we age leads to problems with weakness and frailty, so this suggests another reason to avoid drinking high amounts of alcohol routinely in middle and early older age,” Welch says.

The scourge of sarcopenia

Why is maintaining muscle mass as you get older so important? It helps you avoid a condition known as sarcopenia.

This age-related muscle loss puts you at higher risk of falls and loss of mobility, not to mention the following health complications:

  • Diabetes — Less muscle means your body burns less glucose, making it harder to control blood sugar.
  • Osteoporosis — Research indicates sarcopenia can triple your risk for this bone loss condition.
  • Dementia — One study shows people with sarcopenia were six times more likely to have cognitive impairment than those without sarcopenia.
  • Heart disease — Sarcopenia is linked to a stunning 77 percent increase in cardiovascular disease risk, which could be related to the lack of activity it causes.

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Who drinks that much?

It’s worth noting that a lot of alcohol’s bad effects are directly linked to how much you drink — the heavier the consumption, the worse your health risks.

Still, how many people drink the equivalent of a bottle of wine in one sitting? You’d be surprised…

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 39 million adults in the U.S. drink too much. They define “too much” as follows:

  • For men, binge drinking (5 or more drinks consumed within 2 to 3 hours)
  • For women, binge drinking (4 or more drinks consumed within 2 to 3 hours)
  • For men, 15 or more drinks on average per week
  • For women, 8 or more drinks on average per week

By these standards, it’s best to keep alcohol consumption to a maximum of one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men — and perhaps better to choose resveratrol-rich red wine or lager over hard liquor.


Heavy drinkers risk muscle loss, new study finds — EurekAlert!

About 38 Million Adults in the US Drink Too Much — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.