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Study uncovers another risk for aging boomers

Another sad truth for baby boomers: We just can’t hold our liquor the way we used to. A recent study showed that adults age 55 and over are more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol than their younger counterparts, and the news poses some interesting public policy questions.

The study involved 72 drivers. Half were between 25 and 35 years old, the other half between 55 and 70. The researchers put the participants behind the wheel on a (simulated) three-mile stretch of winding country road where distractions, including other vehicles, were few. The participants drove the course sober and after consuming alcohol. While the results were a little surprising, the study showed at the very least that local baby boomers may want to become familiar with San Francisco’s public transit system.

The researchers looked at how well participants stayed in the center of the lane and how well they were able to maintain a constant speed. Also studied was the participants’ ability to adjust the steering wheel quickly. Again, distractions were limited: As the lead researcher said, “There wasn’t even a cow.”

To gauge the effect of alcohol on the same skills, the researchers gave the participants one of three drinks that resulted in three different levels of drunkenness — negligible, 0.04 percent breath alcohol level and 0.065 percent breach alcohol level. The objective was not to get the participants snockered; it was not even to get them legally drunk. Rather, the researchers wanted to mimic how impaired the drivers would be after having a drink with dinner. The drivers also waited for a while after drinking before they took the wheel, following the real-life timing of dining out.

The skills of the older drivers suffered with even the limited amounts of alcohol. In a strange twist, though, the younger drivers showed no loss of driving skills at any level of intoxication.

The researchers emphasized that the results do not mean younger adults have carte blanche when it comes to drinking and driving. This was a simulation, after all, with driving conditions that seldom exist in real life.

The results do beg the question of whether lawmakers should consider adjusting the legal limit of 0.08 percent to match the susceptibility of drivers of different ages. Still, while the limit may lower for older drivers, it is unlikely that the limit would increase for younger drivers.

Source: Insurance Journal, “Baby Boomers Can’t Party and Drive Like They Used To,” March 10, 2014

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