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Why Can’t I Hold My Alcohol Anymore?

If sometime Thursday afternoon you suddenly find your legs feeling like jelly (cranberry, of course) and your head feeling as if it is crammed with stuffing, you may be inclined to chalk it up to that 3rd helping of turkey or the 10th narrowly averted family argument. But it could also be that 2nd glass of wine.

“Two glasses of wine make me drowsy?” some of you may be scoffing. “I can down half a bottle of Napa’s finest on a minor holiday and barely feel a thing. I once drank a six-pack on Groundhog Day and was still awake enough to see my shadow.”

Not so fast, baby boomer. As people age, many believe that they feel the effects of alcohol more easily, and science bears this out.

Dr. Reid B. Blackwelder, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a professor at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, said many boomers drinking around the holidays probably don’t drink that often. “Maybe the last time they had several drinks was a year or two ago,” he said. “They think, ‘Well, this is what I did before, so it should be no problem.’ But that same amount of alcohol may hit them harder.”

What gives? Same amount of alcohol, same body, right? Well, no — but then, honestly, you knew that, right?

By the time you reach your baby-boom years, even if you are good about exercising, your body composition has probably changed. You are likely to have more fat and less muscle. And that can change how the body absorbs, and gets rid of, alcohol, said Dr. Christine S. Ritchie of the University of California, San Francisco, and a spokeswoman for the American Geriatrics Society.

“Muscle is where we carry most of our water,” Dr. Ritchie said. “So if you have less total body water, the concentration of alcohol is higher.” Some also theorize that because alcohol is fat soluble, having more fat may allow it to remain in the body longer.

Older people may also feel the effects of alcohol more than when they were younger because the chances are greater that they are taking prescription drugs, and these might interact with the alcohol.

There may also be another explanation. Many people may not really recognize the small cognitive impairments that have come with age, but when they drink, it may be a different matter. “It’s possible that alcohol may unmask some of those changes,” Dr. Ritchie said.

All this means that on Thanksgiving, while health-conscious boomers are thinking twice about how much they eat, they should also think about how much they drink. Nodding off at the table is one thing. Nodding off behind the wheel is something entirely different.

And by the way, that was not your shadow you saw on Groundhog Day — unless you have a tail.