There’s a very common habit you may have that is silently robbing your body of the muscle mass and strength you’ll need as you get older. The habit is drinking alcohol.

Surprised? You knew that alcohol could hurt your liver—but shrink your muscles?

It’s so. A new study finds, in fact, that drinking is strongly linked to worsening sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. Sarcopenia is increasingly recognized as an important contributor to falls and fractures as well as many chronic diseases.

How much you drink is the key. A little bit—not to worry. If you’re still drinking like you did when you were younger, however, it’s time to ask yourself, Is my drinking setting me up for a fall?

Background: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recognized sarcopenia, a combination of low muscle mass and weakness in older adults, as a diagnosable medical condition. It can affect balance and walking and interfere with the ability to take care of the activities of daily living that allow for independence. Muscle mass is also key to metabolic and cognitive health—sarcopenia is linked with increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and cognitive impairment. In short, minimizing or preventing sarcopenia can help you remain healthy, functional and independent at older ages.

We naturally start losing muscle mass in our 40s. By the 50s, the average man or woman loses 1.5% a year. After age 60, that goes up to 3% a year. Sarcopenia, as opposed to just normal age-related muscle loss, is defined as a substantial loss of both muscle mass and strength—so much so that walking is affected. While statistics vary, it is estimated that as many as 15% of Americans age 60 and older and 50% of those age 80 and older have sarcopenia.

A healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a good diet helps prevent sarcopenia. But too little has been known about the role of alcohol, which is what researchers set out to address in the latest study.

Study: Using data from a large national patient registry, South Korean researchers pulled medical records on about 2,400 postmenopausal women. (The issue affects men, too.) The records included measurements of lean body mass (aka, muscle). The women filled out questionnaires about their frequency and quantity of alcohol use, whether they drank alcohol in the morning (a sign of problem drinking), guilt or concern about drinking and known alcohol-related injuries. Based on their responses, they were classified as either at low, medium or high risk for alcohol problems. On average, the women were 62 years old. About 8% had sarcopenia.

Results: Women who were at risk for alcohol problems were at substantially increased risk for sarcopenia. Here are the percentages of women who had sarcopenia associated with their drinking habits…

  • Low risk—7.6% had sarcopenia.
  • Medium risk—11%.
  • High risk—22.7%.

Heavy drinkers, of course, also tend to have otherwise less healthy lifestyles than light drinkers or teetotalers. But even after adjusting for age, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, smoking and exercise habits, high-risk drinkers in this study were more than four times more likely than those in the low-risk group to have sarcopenia.

And what about men? While this study looked only at women, there are reasons to be concerned about men as well. Physiological research has shown that excess alcohol consumption can contribute to sarcopenia regardless of gender.

Bottom line: It’s not exactly shocking to learn that something that we already knew was bad for us—drinking too much—causes additional harms. (According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking for women is an average of no more than seven drinks a week and for men, no more than 14. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over age 65, “low-risk drinking” for men and women is the same—no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three drinks in a single day.) But this new research might be a wake-up call to look at your own habits. Unfortunately, drinking problems are increasing faster among people over 65 than in any other age group. Plus, over the age of about 45, alcohol can be harder on your body than when you were younger—even if you’re still just drinking like you used to. And there’s new evidence that even moderate drinking may not be so great for your brain.

To learn more about drinking and health, take this quiz. For tips on building muscle to protect yourself from sarcopenia, see the Bottom Line article “More Muscle = Less Disease.”