When cocktail hour turns from pastime to problem

Created date

September 22nd, 2009

Most people don't know it, but alcohol or drugs play a part in 70% of all hospital admissions for older adults. [caption id="attachment_3888" align="alignright" width="280" caption="The body s tolerance to alcohol changes over time, which can cause a person to become more intoxicated from fewer drinks. (File photo)"]Eagle s Tracein Houston, Tex. If you re 35 years old and have a normal nervous system, you re going to be able to handle the effects of alcohol better than if you have an 85-year-old nervous system. In light of these physical changes, people accustomed to consuming a certain number of drinks when they were younger may want to cut back to compensate. If they don t or if their consumption increases, their health could suffer as a result. Among the risks of drinking too much are cancer of the pancreas, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, and breasts; pancreatitis; cardiovascular disease; stroke; high blood pressure; and cirrhosis of the liver.

Medications and alcohol

People taking medications should be especially vigilant about how much they re drinking. Prescription bottles offer vague warnings: May cause dizziness. Alcohol may intensify this effect. Fast Fact: Half of people over 65 drink alcohol; up to 15% may be experiencing health risks from the amount they consume or the combination of alcohol with chronic conditions and medications. ' Source: American Geriatrics Society So is it still safe to drink? It depends on what the medications are, says Holden. I would encourage people to ask their pharmacist when they are getting a medication: Can I drink this with a glass of wine? or I have two drinks a day. Is that going to be OK? Mixing some products with alcohol could be fatal. It can happen on a one-time basis, says Holden. There are multiple reports of people who developed liver failure from taking Tylenol and alcohol together. Usually it doesn t happen with a small amount, but people can overdose that way. For those taking antibiotics, anticoagulants, antidepressants, diabetes medications, antihistamines, anti-seizure medications, beta blockers, pain relievers, or sleeping pills, experts recommend talking first with the pharmacist or physician before drinking alcohol.

The hidden epidemic

While mixing medications and alcohol is potentially fatal, dependence on alcohol alone can be deadly as well. If the body becomes physically dependent on alcohol, symptoms of withdrawal are sure to follow. These symptoms can include anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, and seizures. But trying to pinpoint when alcohol turns from a pastime to a problem is a gray area. Signs of dependency could be when people:
  • can t control how much they drink and for how long
  • behave inappropriately while drinking
  • become preoccupied with alcohol
  • deny there s a problem at all
And although it isn t often discussed, many older adults are struggling with their drinking. I would encourage people to ' ask their pharmacist when they ' are getting a medication: Can I drink this with a glass of wine? or ' I have two drinks a day. Is that ' going to be OK? ' Mark Holden, M.D., medical director ' at Eagle s Trace The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA) put out a report showing that 17%, or approximately eight million, older adults suffer from drug and alcohol problems, says Colleran. That s a huge percentage. When 17% of any population has problems with alcohol or drugs, I believe that is an epidemic. And it has been hidden for a lot of reasons. Many people are simply uncomfortable approaching the topic. I hear over and over again, Just leave older people alone and let them enjoy their later years. Well, it s not a pleasure when you re steeped in the disease of alcoholism.

Understanding on the way

Just as often as it is overlooked, alcohol dependence is misdiagnosed, mistaken for ' dementia, Alzheimer s, or Parkinson s disease. A man called me about a year ago because his mother was increasingly confused. It looked like she was suffering from dementia when suddenly her memory got really bad and she wasn t able to take care of herself, recalls Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer at Hazelden in Center City, Minn. Yet he knew she was a drinker. So he helped her get into a place where she could get treatment for her alcohol addiction. And while she was sober, the cognitive problems cleared up almost entirely. To serve the complex needs of older adults, some alcohol treatment centers have tailored programs for them. They include medical, mental health, spiritual, wellness, and recreation-oriented team members to support individuals through dependence into recovery from addiction. It s OK to have a problem and ask for help, says Colleran, who is executive vice president of public policy and national affairs for the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., which runs the Center for Older Adult Recovery. I wish people could meet those who have gotten into recovery at 65, 70, 75, and see the kinds of lives they are leading now. A lot of times after getting sober, people rediscover their family relationships, they are able to enjoy their grandchildren better, they volunteer to help others. Treatment is not the end of the problem; it s the beginning of the solution. For more information about problems related to alcohol, visit the SAMSHA website atwww.samhsa.govor call 1-877-726-4727.