As the baby boomer generation moves into senior citizen status they carry with them habits and patterns of drinking that may be putting them at greater risk for both legal and health problems.

One study based at the University of Florida, showed that adults aged 50 to 74 who drank the equivalent of two drinks took five seconds longer to complete a task than adults 25 to 35 who had the same amount to drink.  Meanwhile, adults in the same age groups who had no alcohol to drink completed the task in about the same time.

Five seconds may not sound like much but, if you are driving, that 5 seconds delay in braking could make the difference between getting home safely, receiving a DUI or becoming involved in a fatal crash.

But the other important finding of the study was that while drinkers in both groups self-reported their estimated level of impairment about the same on a scale from 1 to 10, tests revealed that the older drinkers were significantly more impaired.  Older drinkers tend to underestimate their level of impairment.

While an individual’s response to alcohol may vary there are some substantial differences in how you are affected by alcohol as you age.   Three significant factors are:

Decrease in body water – As we age there is a decrease in lean muscle and an increase in body fat.  Since alcohol is not fat-soluble this change results in an increase in the concentration of alcohol in the blood system.

Increased sensitivity/decreased tolerance to alcohol – Simply put – it doesn’t take as much alcohol to get you drunk as it did when you were 25.

Decreased metabolism of alcohol – a decrease in an enzyme that breaks down alcohol causes the alcohol to stay in the system longer causing the levels to remain higher for a longer period of time. Having less of this enzyme puts an added strain on the liver which is already stressed from the other medications people in this age group are taking.

Consequently, if you are over age 50 and have had a couple of drinks, you may be impaired to the point that it is unsafe for you to drive, even though you feel perfectly fine.

The authors of the Florida study suggest that you take a little extra time before getting in the car and driving home. “If you have a couple of drinks at dinner, sit around, have dessert — don’t drive for a while,” they suggested.