As the holiday season and its litany of parties and get-togethers gather steam, don’t let those ubiquitous cheery toasts burn you. The effect of the alcohol in your glass is more powerful than it was when you were younger.
“For boomers and seniors, the nervous system is more sensitive to alcohol, so there’s a greater likelihood of impairment in all kinds of ways,” says Dr. Eric Collins, physician-in-chief at Silver Hill Hospital (silverhillhospital.org), an addiction-treatment facility in New Canaan, Conn.
Collins says the temptations of the season are hardest on older adults who have a history of drinking problems that they have managed to get under control. These people must avoid alcohol, because even one drink could undue years of sobriety.
But even people who do not have alcohol-addiction problems must be careful. The vast majority of people 65 and older regularly take prescription or over-the-counter medications. Many haven’t looked at the warnings on the labels in years, and Collins says for some medications, there are serious overdose risks. “Those warnings should be heeded very seriously, especially for people in later life,” he says. “For example with prescription pain killers and with certain sleep meds and other sedatives for anxiety, like Xanax, Ativan and Valium.”
Another group of older adults are also at risk during this season of celebration, and, ironically, it’s because they don’t socialize. People who live alone, often the very elderly, may increase their drinking dangerously and even engage in binge drinking. “The isolation, the sadness and loneliness, at a time of year that seems to be so festive, may lead someone to increase his or her drinking,” Collins says. “The holidays are a part of it, the isolation is a part of it, the time in life is a part of it.”
But Collins says that healthy older adults without prior drinking problems can toast the season with a few drinks, as long as they are careful and set a limit. “It’s not so terrible a night if you only have two drinks over the course of the entire evening,” he says. “No one ever woke up the next day saying I wish I had more.”
For more information on drinking and older adults from the National Institutes of Health, along with a list of common medications that can dangerously interact with alcohol, go to nwsdy.li/olderdrinking.