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Moderation in Alcohol Consumption Urged Among Older People

May 6, 2021 - Keep tabs on your alcohol consumption especially if you are getting older, have health issues or take medications, urges the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Elizabeth Hertel and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) Chair Pat Gagliardi as they recognize May as Older Americans Month.

"Michiganders may react differently to alcohol as they get older than they did in their younger years as aging actually lowers the body's tolerance for alcohol," said Hertel. "Many medicines - prescription, over-the-counter or even herbal remedies - can be dangerous or even deadly when mixed with alcohol. Please check with your health care provider about if you can safely consume alcohol if you are taking medications."

Aging lowers the body's tolerance for alcohol and slows the body's ability to break down alcohol, remaining in a person's system longer. Older adults generally experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger, putting them at higher risk for falls, car crashes, and other unintentional injuries that may result from drinking. Older people also have thinner bones than younger people, so their bones break more easily. Studies show that the rate of hip fractures in older adults increases with alcohol use.

Light to moderate alcohol consumption is considered acceptable for healthy adults. The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism advises that people older than age 65 who are healthy and who do not take any medicines, have no more than seven drinks a week. The American Diabetes Association guidelines indicate one drink or less a day for women, or two drinks or less a day for men is acceptable.

Heavy drinking can exacerbate certain health problems that are common among older adults, including: diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, osteoporosis, memory problems and mood disorders. Alcohol increases the amount of estrogen in the body, and for women and particularly postmenopausal women, that has a role in developing hormone-sensitive breast cancer.

For seniors who consume alcohol and take medications, consider these important safety reminders:

  • Always ask your health care provider or pharmacist if the medications, whether prescribed or over the counter, that you are taking will interact with certain food and drinks.
  • Adhere to warning labels on medicines that caution against consumption of alcohol. The danger is real. Mixing alcohol with certain medications can cause nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, fainting, or loss of coordination. It also can increase the risk for internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulties in breathing.
  • Many prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as herbal remedies can be dangerous or even deadly when mixed with alcohol. Medications that can interact badly with alcohol include: aspirin, acetaminophen, cold and allergy medicine, cough syrup, sleeping pills and medications for anxiety or depression.
  • Be extremely cautious or avoid alcohol altogether when taking beta-blockers (used to treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and chest pain (angina) and sometimes used in heart attack patients to prevent future heart attacks). Alcohol can potentially make beta-blockers less effective or increase the risk of side effects.
  • Alcohol can also make a medication less effective or even useless, or it may make the medication harmful or toxic to your body.
  • Harmful interactions between alcohol and medicines can occur even if they are not taken at the same time.

For older people who choose to drink with permission from their health care provider and are aware of the risks, stay within your limits to help prevent any serious interactions by:

  • Taking light beers and dryer wines which are lesser in alcohol content and calories.
  • Not consuming sweeter alcohols or drinks which are higher in sugar.
  • Mixing a mixed drink with water or sweet drinks with diet soda.

"Baby boomers are enjoying alcohol well into their senior years and we urge them to do so responsibly, just as we remind our children and grandkids," said Gagliardi. "Michigan's seniors are a fast growing and treasured segment of our society and we know that nationally, problematic alcohol consumption can happen among older people."   

Michigan has the 14th highest percentage of residents aged 65 and older out of all 50 states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2019 statistics. That is, 17.5 percent of Michigan's population is 65 years old or older, with 29.1 residents aged 65 and older for every 100 working-age residents (16-64 years old).

Almost a quarter of Michigan's population was age 60 or over (more than 2.4 million people) in 2018, and the U.S Census projects that will increase to 2.7 million by 2030. Michiganders age 60 will live for about 23 more years on average, based on calculations by the CDC. Those age 85 and older continue to be the fastest growing population segment in our state.

Older Americans Month began in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy designated May as Senior Citizens Month. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Older Americans Act of 1965 and formally declared May as Older Americans Month. This annual designation serves to honor older Americans by celebrating their contributions to our communities and our nation.

It is the mission of the MLCC to make alcoholic beverages available for consumption while protecting the consumer and the general public through the regulation of those involved in the importation, sale, consumption, distribution, and delivery of these alcohol products.

Sources:  Michigan State Plan on Aging Fiscal Years 2021-2023, Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services, Aging and Adult Services Agency; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; AARP; Texas Heart Institute; Journal of the American Geriatrics Society; Cleveland Clinic; U.S. Census Bureau 2018.

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