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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Affect the Aging Process?

October 26, 2023
10 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 26, 2023
10 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 26, 2023
10 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 26, 2023
10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 26, 2023
10 min read

Drinking can take a toll on our health. From increasing our risk of cancer and liver damage to worsening pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, alcohol affects nearly every system in our body that impacts our health and well-being. 

There’s one particularly troubling effect of alcohol: premature aging. Perhaps unsurprisingly, alcohol can also accelerate the aging process — even at the cellular level. In fact, the more we drink, the greater our chance of damaging cells at a biological level, causing them to age prematurely. How does alcohol make you look older? And does drinking age you before your time? Let’s take a closer look at the effects of alcohol on aging.

Does Alcohol Make You Age Faster?

Does alcohol age you physically? Recent research indicates that excessive alcohol consumption can indeed speed up the aging process at a biological level. One study in particular showed that heavy alcohol drinkers and those with alcohol use disorder were significantly more likely to have shorter telomeres — an essential part of our chromosomes linked to aging and overall health. 

We can think about telomeres like the tips of shoelaces that keep them from unraveling: their role is to protect the ends of chromosomes. Whenever a cell divides, telomeres lose a part of their DNA. As we age, our telomeres get shorter and shorter until all the DNA in the telomere is lost and cells can no longer replicate. This is what causes many cells to die.

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In short, researchers concluded that heavy alcohol use and binge drinking — defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a sitting for men, and four or more drinks in a sitting for women — can lead to premature shortening of telomeres. This essentially puts us at greater risk for developing diseases such as cancer. Some studies have also found associations between shorter telomeres and pulmonary disease and liver disease.

Interestingly, researchers also noted that shorter telomeres correlated with thiamine (vitamin B-1) deficiency. Our body needs thiamine to metabolize carbohydrates, amino acids, and fatty acids. A severe thiamine deficiency can cause beriberi, a disease that affects several organs and can lead to neurological disorders, such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy or the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. 

Why Does Alcohol Make You Look Older?

While we might not notice the effect of drinking on our cells, alcohol can speed up our aging process in many other ways. One of the most visible impacts alcohol can have is on our complexion, as drinking excessively is known to cause redness and dry, wrinkly skin.

The alcohol-skin aging connection has a few sides to it. On one hand, alcohol can also cause a deficiency of nutrients like vitamin A, which helps with cell regeneration and collagen production — both of which are essential to youthful skin. Since alcohol causes dehydration, it can also dry out our skin and make wrinkles form faster. Furthermore, alcohol can cause enlarged blood vessels, which gives our skin a redder appearance.

Alcohol's impact on aging

Other Aspects of the Alcohol and Aging Dilemma

Excessive alcohol consumption can even cause us to look older. One study found that men who consumed more than 35 drinks a week were 35% more likely to display “arcus corneae” — a gray ring in the eye that often pops up in old age. Women who had 28 drinks or more per week had a 33% higher chance of developing the same syndrome. 

Here are several more ways that alcohol affects the aging process: 

  • Weakens the immune system: Alcohol can also speed up the aging process by putting extra strain on our body. For instance, drinking alcohol causes our body to release more stress hormones, such as cortisol, which is known to impact aging. Excessive cortisol in our bloodstream can lead to health problems by suppressing our immune system
  • Prevents proper nourishment: Alcohol also affects the functioning of our digestive system, making it harder for us to absorb essential nutrients (such as vitamins A, B, D, and E) and minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc). Deficiencies can limit our body’s ability to maintain itself and contribute to symptoms associated with aging, such as memory loss and cognitive decline.
  • Compromises bone health: Heavy drinking also diminishes bone mass density by impeding cell growth. Decreases in bone mineral density often lead to osteoporosis, a common sign of early aging that increases fragility in the bones. 
  • Weakens vital organs: Alcohol can also affect the way some vital organs work and make them age faster. For instance, while heavy drinkers are more likely to have cirrhosis (or permanent damage to our liver), even moderate drinking can lead to problems like fatty liver disease. Alcohol can also lead to inflammation of the kidneys and a need for dialysis. These damaged organs can also harm the chemical balance in our body, leading to early aging. 
  • Shrinks brain: Heavy drinking over a long term can even shrink brain cells, leading to alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). It may also increase our risk of developing dementia, causing memory loss and affecting our ability to complete tasks. Some studies have shown these impacts on the brains of young people who drink heavily. 
  • Causes weight gain: Alcohol can cause weight gain, which is also associated with aging. As we get older, our metabolism naturally slows down. Drinking alcohol raises our insulin levels, which makes our body store more fat in our stomach area. This can eventually lead to obesity, which has been shown to accelerate the aging process. 
  • Disrupts sleep: Alcohol also causes fragmented sleep that disrupts our sleep cycle and prevents us from getting restorative rest. Quality sleep is important for nearly every aspect of our health, including our metabolism, energy levels, mood, and immune function. In fact, research suggests that just a single night of sleep deprivation can speed up cellular aging. On the other hand, good sleep patterns have actually been shown to add years to our life.

Alcohol and Premature Aging: The Bottom Line

Heavy alcohol consumption not only causes visible changes to our body that make us look older — it actually accelerates our aging at a cellular level. This puts us at an even greater risk for prematurely developing cancer or disease. We might not notice the effects right away, but underneath the surface, alcohol damages the many bodily systems and functions that are vital for living well into old age. 

One of the best things we can do to protect our health and longevity is to drink less alcohol. Reframe has helped millions of people around the world cut back on their alcohol consumption — and helped put them on track to lead healthier, longer lives. 

Protect Your Health and Longevity With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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