Why Seniors Need to Ease Up on the Booze

By Dirk Hanson 11/16/11

Nobody's saying most senior drinkers need to quit, but aging does expose them to a worrying list of extra risks.

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Older drinkers should limit the partying.
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Roughly 50% of Americans over 65 drink, but they're no more likely to have a problem with alcohol than anybody else. For most people, the older they get, the less alcohol they can slam. And that’s just as well: when it comes to booze, there are special risks posed by the changes that happen as we age. A daunting list of problems caused or worsened by heavy drinking in seniors includes gastrointestinal complaints, liver disease, hemorrhagic stroke, incontinence, sleep disorders, violence, and accidents or falls. And medicines are metabolized more slowly—and react with alcohol more dramatically—in older drinkers. So if antihistamines make you drowsy, or an aspirin makes you bleed, alcohol abuse is one sure way to make that worse. The same goes for blood pressure meds (dizziness), ulcer meds (impaired balance), and antibiotics (headache, rapid heart rate). But don’t take our word for it. If you're of a certain age, go to www.wisedrinking.org, and take their Health and Alcohol Use Survey. The site asks about your general health, exercise, alcohol use and current medications, then assembles a report for you, spotlighting potentially hazardous drug-alcohol interactions and drinking patterns. Moderate drinking can be beneficial for seniors, but using too much makes health care more difficult. Psychologist Stephen Bright, who helped design the online program, says: "Alcohol is a colorful thread woven through our culture. We're not saying alcohol is bad. We are just trying to promote low-risk drinking." You'll do well to ease up as you age.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]