Was "Drink Less Alcohol" on Your List of New Year’s Resolutions?
Losing weight and saving money might be at the top of most people's New Year's resolutions—but for many of us, "drink less alcohol" is also on the list. And maybe that hangover on January 1 reinforced that this is a worthy goal!
Almost three-fourths of American adults enjoy a drink now and then. Some studies have shown health benefits from moderate drinking. But drinking too much alcohol is bad for our health in many ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says excessive alcohol consumption leads to 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year—shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years!
Seniors are especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. If you or an older loved one imbibes regularly, here are five important things to consider:
Growing older changes the way alcohol affects us. As we age, our bodies contain less water, so each drink causes a higher blood alcohol concentration than it would have when we were younger. We may feel the effects more quickly; a single cocktail that would hardly faze us in our younger years may make it unsafe for us to drive—or even to walk.
Statistics show that older adults today, especially women, are drinking more than the seniors of previous generations. Some of these seniors may have been lifelong drinkers, while others turned to alcohol later in life, perhaps in response to a major life change, such as disability, the loss of a spouse—or even retirement. (To learn more about that, read "Overdoing the Retirement Toasts" in the April 2015 issue of Caring Right at Home.) Seniors who are experiencing depression might self-medicate with alcohol, but alcohol actually is a depressant, and after the initial upbeat effect wears off, they will feel all the worse.
Alcohol worsens many health conditions that are common among older adults. These include diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver problems and osteoporosis. Alcohol raises the risk of stroke, digestion problems and some cancers. Using alcohol makes it significantly more likely that a senior will be injured—or even killed—in a fall or car accident. And while many people have a nightcap to help them drift off at bedtime, alcohol actually leads to poor-quality sleep. Alcohol dependency also has a negative impact on relationships, increasing loneliness and depression.
The effect of alcohol on brain health deserves special mention. A September 2016 study from the University of Florida College of Medicine found that seniors who are heavy drinkers sustain cognitive damage. Said geriatrics professor Adam Woods, Ph.D., "As people get older, decline of memory is one of their greatest complaints. We found that in those who drink heavily, as they age, they have a greater decline in thinking and memory than their non-drinking or moderate-drinking counterparts." The research team noted that heavy drinkers have difficulty "learning new technology, remembering steps to a recipe, taking a medication on a prescribed schedule, and even driving."
Most seniors take multiple medications, many of which can interact dangerously with alcohol. A poll in the October 2016 issue of Caring Right at Home found that many seniors have trouble managing medications. Even if they have their doctor or pharmacist review their prescription drugs to avoid combinations that might cause dangerous side effects, they might forget that alcohol, too, is a drug! According to the National Institutes of Health, 78 percent of seniors take prescription drugs that, when mixed with alcohol, can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, fainting, breathing difficulty, heart problems, internal bleeding and even death.
The National Institute on Aging provides examples of medications that don’t mix well with alcohol:
- If you take aspirin and drink, your risk of stomach or intestinal bleeding is increased.
- When combined with alcohol, cold and allergy medicines may make you feel very sleepy.
- Alcohol used with large doses of acetaminophen, a common painkiller, may cause liver damage.
- Some medicines, such as cough syrups and laxatives, have high alcohol content. If you drink at the same time, your alcohol level will go up.
- Alcohol used with some sleeping pills, pain pills, or anxiety/anti-depression medicine can be deadly.
- Always ask your doctor or pharmacist if it's safe to drink while taking your medications—and that includes nonprescription drugs and herbal products.
If it's time to cut back or quit ...
Maybe you were already aware of the risks listed above, yet you find it hard to stop drinking. You might decide in the morning to skip the evening cocktail … but when 6:00, or 7:00, or 10:00 rolls around, the bottle beckons.
The first step is to avoid judging yourself. It took time to develop a drinking habit, and it will no doubt take time to shed it. Here are some suggestions if you're thinking about cutting back or quitting:
Keep a drinking diary. It's so easy to have "just one more" when your resistance is already lowered by the effects of alcohol. Write it down, just for yourself, so you won't be tempted to understate how much you're drinking. You can’t count that giant goblet of wine as one drink—for wine, one drink is 5 ounces. For beer, it’s 12 ounces (for malt liquor and craft beers with over 5 percent alcohol content, it's more like 8 ounces). And for distilled spirits such as gin, rum, whiskey and vodka, one drink is 1.5 ounces.
Make a list of the activities and people that you love, and think how the effects of alcohol could make it harder for you to enjoy them—or even shorten your life, so you might truly miss out on the birth of grandchildren, long-awaited trips or other anticipated rewards of later life.
Motivate yourself with the thought of weight loss. If "lose weight" and "drink less" were both on your list of resolutions, check out this alcohol calorie calculator from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Not worried about your weight? How about your wallet? The NIAAA also offers an alcohol spending calculator. What would you do with the $1,000 a year you’d save by giving up a two-drink-per-day habit?
If you're having trouble cutting back, asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of! Talk to your doctor about counseling, a support group, medications or entering a treatment program.
To check out more free online alcohol awareness tools from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, visit the Rethinking Drinking website for consumers (www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov). The NIAAA also offers a list of medications that interact with alcohol, and more information about the special concerns of senior drinkers.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about your drinking.