With Christmas and New Year here for another year, many people across the world will be enjoying increased amounts of alcohol to celebrate the festive season. While there aren’t specific guidelines for over-60s when it comes to drinking, the recommendations by the National Health and Medical Research Council is that men and women over the age of 18 shouldn’t be consuming more than two standard drinks on any one day, or more than two standard drinks a day across a week.
In a single session of drinking alcohol, people shouldn’t drink more than four standard drinks if they’re looking to reduce the acute and long-term risk of alcohol.
Speaking to Starts at 60, Melbourne-based psychiatrist Dr Kieran Kennedy said older people are more likely to experience increased health risks when drinking.
“There are things in terms of health and other medications that can mean even [a small] amount of alcohol can potentially be more unsafe than someone in their 30s or 40s,” Kennedy said. “As we age, the prevalence of problems with our health – whether that’s blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis – those things increase.”
Drinking alcohol both in the short or long term can impact or worsen these kinds of health conditions. For example, high blood pressure can increase – even if someone is drinking in small amounts.
“Even in the short term, alcohol can increase blood pressure,” Kennedy explained. “If someone has hypertension or really struggles with their blood pressure, even drinking alcohol over a day or in the short term can influence and raise blood pressure and put them at risk.”
High blood pressure can cause an array of life-changing issues including damaging the arteries, impacting the heart by causing coronary artery disease or heart issues, and cause brain issues including transient ischemic attacks, strokes. It can also damage the eyes and cause kidney failure and nerve damage – just to name a few.
High blood pressure aside, longer term drinking also comes with an increased risk of facing other serious health problems including diabetes, heart failure, osteoporosis, as well as mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. For those who take medication, drinking can also put them at risk.
“For the older side of the population who are much more likely not just be on medication but a number of different medications, there’s potential for alcohol to interact with certain medication,” Kennedy warned.
While there isn’t one specific guideline because individual circumstances change from person to person, it’s always important to discuss alcohol use with a GP or health professional and to be aware of side effects that drinking alcohol can cause. As an example, some blood thinning medication can interact with alcohol, while medication such as aspirin can impact on liver function.
Cold and flu medication and sleeping tablets are other drugs that have side effects when mixed with alcohol. They can cause increased drowsiness and a higher risk of falls, while those mixing medication for mental health conditions with alcohol can experience sedation, confusion and a heightened risk of falls.
“It really does depend on the medication someone is taking,” Kennedy noted. “Because older people are more likely to be on a range of medication, talking to your doctor about that and getting an individual recommendation for you whether it’s safe to drink and how much is safe is really important.”
There are also red flags people using alcohol and their loved ones can look out for that could point to a problem. If someone is using alcohol on a daily basis or drinking in excess on one-off occasions, that could be putting their health at risk and support may be needed. Additionally, if someone’s drinking is impacting their driving ability, they’re falling more or their mental health changes, it could also be a sign that a discussion with a health professional is needed to ensure alcohol is not impacting an existing health conditions, creating another health problem or interacting with medication.
“Especially around the holiday period, it can be difficult for people to accept that actually their body and mind might handle alcohol different to how it did when we were young,” Kennedy said. “There’s a very real chance that drinking is going to affect them differently or intensely than it might have when we were younger. Just keeping that in mind is one of the most important things if you are going to be having a drink or treating yourself over the holiday period.”
Similarly, older people are naturally more likely to experience health problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes and will usually be on medication to treat those conditions. It’s important to be aware of those things when making a decision about having a drink over Christmas and to ensure that drinking plans are discussed with a GP or health professional.
“That is something that can potentially interact with alcohol as well and put our physical health, our mental health and our safety in that moment from things like falls at risk,” Kennedy added. “It’s important to be aware of those things when you’re making a decision about having a drink over Christmas and just doing it in a way that’s most supported and protected for you.”