More older Americans are drinking heavily

Wellness
Senior consuming a beer.

Friends at their 40th college reunion might joke about it, but there’s truth behind the anecdote that most of us can’t hold our liquor the way we did when we were in our 20s.
Aging changes how our bodies metabolize food and medication, and the amount of alcohol that represents a “problem” varies by the individual as people age, says Dr. Ernie Gelb, an experienced family medicine and geriatrics physician who practices at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road in Myrtle Beach.
A recent study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that “problem” drinking is rising among older Americans. The percentage of people older than 65 who said they drank in the past year increased by 22 percent, according to data that scientists collected from 40,000 adults over more than 10 years.
The number of older adults with an alcohol use disorder more than doubled and more older adults engaged in “high-risk drinking,” defined as five or more drinks daily for a man and four drinks a day for women.

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Consequences

Dr. Gelb says the consequences of drinking change as people age, particularly if they’re taking medication.
The troublesome indications he has seen most often over 30 years in practice are gastritis, a condition characterized by a red or swollen stomach lining, gastrointestinal blood loss (which can be exacerbated by blood-thinning medications) and a greater risk for dehydration, he says.
“It’s fairly common for seniors to present as weak and dizzy in my office,” he says. “When you breathe, water evaporates from your lungs and seniors can get dehydration. When you introduce alcohol into a senior who’s already dehydrated, they may not handle it well and they could get weak, dizzy and confused.”
Generally, alcohol tolerance is unique to the individual and depends on age, muscle mass, medications they’re taking, medical conditions (such as high blood pressure) and other factors, Dr. Gelb says.

Tolerance

A healthy 80-year-old who plays golf three times a week and isn’t being treated for diabetes or high blood pressure will tend to tolerate alcohol better than someone younger or the same age who does have those diseases, he says.
Some people might notice as they age that they feel more intoxicated without increasing the amount of alcohol they drink. That’s because our body’s ability to process it slows down, says Dr. Gelb.
Response time and reflexes also slow as we age, putting older people at greater risk of falling, especially after consuming alcohol, says Gelb, who is a past president of the Pennsylvania Osteopathic Medical Association.
Drinking can also worsen the symptoms of some health problems, including memory loss, mood disorders and high blood pressure, and lead to other problems such as liver damage, cancer, brain damage and immune system disorders.
Dr. Gelb encourages his patients to consume alcohol moderately, if at all. When health complications arise among people who regularly consume alcohol, Dr. Gelb usually recommends patients reduce their intake, typically by about half. Sometimes patients are angry and sometimes they’re thankful, he says, and compliance varies, even among patients who are aware of the risks.
Ultimately, people make their own decisions, he says. For seniors who do decide to drink, he says it is very important to stay well hydrated.
“If you’re going to drink, you should be drinking a glass of water at least every other drink,” the physician says.

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