As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I am committed to providing much-needed health education around alcohol use and safety issues.
One thing that isn’t talked about enough is the health and safety of older adults around alcohol use. Yes, it’s ok for older adults to drink in low quantities, but heavy usage is not safe for their physical and mental health. I have noticed that the people who read and comment on my educational articles have shared horror stories of older family members who really lost their quality of life due to heavy drinking. Of course, aging will always bring a normal decline, however, heavy drinking can seriously alter our older family members in unsafe and disturbing ways.
I taught undergraduate nursing in a senior health facility in Canada for many years. I was amazed at how little people knew about the normal changes inside older adults’ bodies. These changes have an impact on the health and wellbeing of older adults. However, in the case of alcohol use, some of these changes may interact quite poorly with heavy drinking.
For example, studies show that hip fractures increase for older adults with heavier alcohol use. However, there are other issues as well that are important for the wellbeing of older adults around alcohol use.
As I stated above, the risks for injury and accidents increase quite a bit for older adults who drink heavily. Not only are they at risk for falls, but they’re also at risk for car accidents and other injuries. Alcohol leads to disabled judgment, poor balance, and slow reaction time. Older adults have thinner bones and skin, which means injuries do more damage in this population than in younger people. This can lead to significant disability and economic issues for the person and their family.
Impact on health issues
Older adults naturally have more health problems due to the normal wear and tear of aging. The most common issues are metabolic (high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes), arthritis and other joint issues, and cardiac, kidney, and vascular problems. Unfortunately, alcohol makes all of these health issues worse and can even cause some of them.
However, those with lower body weight should be even more cautious with alcohol use. For example, alcohol raises blood pressure and causes dehydration, which is especially problematic in the older population. For this reason, it’s even more critical for older adults to stay within the safe drinking limits, which are 1 drink per day for a woman and 2 drinks a day for a man.
Mixing alcohol and medications
Older adults tend to be on more medication because they have more health issues. Unfortunately, there are many medications that, when mixed with alcohol, can increase injuries and health complications. Of particular risk are medications that cause drowsiness like benzodiazepines, mental health medication, and sleeping pills.
However, another risk is that alcohol and certain medications are hard on the organs. Mixing the two can present more health problems by rapidly aging some of these organs. For example, cholesterol medication is very hard on the liver, and so is alcohol. Mixing these medications can speed up organ damage, which is already in decline for older adults.
Alcohol increases brain atrophy
Recent research shows that even low-dose alcohol can be dangerous for the brain. Alcohol can increase aging and atrophy of the brain for anyone, but it can be deadly for people already at an advanced age. Alcohol causes damage to the nervous system each time a person drinks heavily. Over time, this can cause severe issues for the brain and can lead to dementia, memory issues, and advanced balance problems.
Alcohol may be safe for older people only when consumed in low quantities. However, it depends on the person, their health background, and any medications they take. However, most doctors don’t educate older people about alcohol use and its dangers in their senior years. Hopefully, this article sheds some light on it. Our population contains a lot more aging adults now as the population swings ever upwards. The more we understand health issues and aging, the better we can promote health and wellbeing.
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