Question: I have a good female friend, 72 years old, who drinks about three glasses of wine a day. Since her husband died, she has a third or fourth glass of wine at her bedside and sips it before going to sleep.  She says wine is better than sleeping pills.  Her behavior and activities haven’t changed and she is never loopy.  Should I be concerned? 

Answer: It’s hard to determine whether or not your friend has a problem with alcohol.  Perhaps a few facts about aging and alcohol consumption can provide some insights and guidance.

Age is a factor.  The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that as people age, they become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol.  Older and younger persons can consume the same amount, yet the effect is likely to be greater on older persons.  They reach higher levels of blood alcohol faster and maintain them longer than younger people.

In an article in the International Herald Tribune (Dec. 16, 2008), Jane Brody asked, “Is alcohol a tonic or toxin?” To address the question, Brody cited a comprehensive review of risks and benefits of alcohol consumption from research reviewed by Maria Pontes Ferreira and M.K. Suzy Weems in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Risks:
Based on more than three drinks a day, the following risks were identified:

  • Alcohol makes some medical conditions – such as high blood pressure, ulcers and diabetes – worse.
  • When combined with prescription and over-the-counter drugs, alcohol consumption can lead to dangerous, and often deadly, risks.  With about three drinks a day, the risk of bleeding from aspirin increases; when combined with allergy medicines, the risk of drowsiness increases; and when combined with high doses of acetaminophen (Tylenol), the risk increases for liver damage.
  • Alcohol increases hazards of falls, auto accidents and a decline in short-term memory.
  • Alcohol increases the risk for certain cancers, liver cirrhosis, immune system disorders and brain damage.
  • The risk of conflicts with family, friends and coworkers also increases.

Benefits:
Most evidence for the benefits of drinking alcohol is based on population studies that reveal associations, rather than causes and effects.  According to Brody, there have been just a few randomized controlled clinical trials of alcohol that definitively show health benefits.  Given that caveat, here are a few, based on consumption of one drink a day for women and two for men:

  • Alcohol improves appetite and nutrition.
  • Alcohol reduces risk of cardiovascular disease. Based on 100 studies in 25 countries, moderate drinkers 50 and older were less likely to suffer heart attacks and die prematurely than abstainers or heavy drinkers.
  • Alcohol reduces risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.  This is based on emerging data that suggests an association between moderate intake and reduced risk.  Note the use of the term “association” which does not necessarily mean “caused by.”
  • Alcohol improves social relationships and health-related quality of life based on studies in retirement communities.

Not everyone who drinks regularly has a drinking problem and not all problem drinkers drink every day.  When does drinking become a problem?

The NIAAA and the National Institute on Aging suggest getting help if an individual drinks to calm his or her nerves, to forget worries or to reduce depression; gulps down drinks; frequently has more than one drink per day; lies about, or tries to hide, his or her drinking habits; hurts oneself or someone else while drinking; needs more alcohol to get high; feels irritable, resentful or unreasonable when not drinking; or has medical, social or financial worries caused by drinking.

Physicians often do not diagnose an alcohol problem.  According to Brody, they rarely ask their older patients how much they drink.  Overlooking the subject can result in misdiagnosis, medical complications and life-threatening accidents.

The problem is expected to worsen since baby boomers consume more alcohol than previous generations.  And the oldest is now 63 years.

You might ask your friend to review the list of is list of indicators.  Know that older and younger adults benefit from intervention, support and counseling.  The Los Angeles Central Office of Alcoholics Anonymous can be reached at (800) 923-8722, 24-hours a day.

Your friend is fortunate to have you as a caring friend.  Best wishes for a successful dialogue – if needed.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

Question: I have a good female friend, 72 years old, who drinks about three glasses of wine a day. Since her husband died, she has a third or fourth glass of wine at her bedside and sips it before going to sleep.  She says wine is better than sleeping pills.  Her behavior and activities haven’t changed and she is never loopy.  Should I be concerned? 

Answer: It’s hard to determine whether or not your friend has a problem with alcohol.  Perhaps a few facts about aging and alcohol consumption can provide some insights and guidance.

Age is a factor.  The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that as people age, they become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol.  Older and younger persons can consume the same amount, yet the effect is likely to be greater on older persons.  They reach higher levels of blood alcohol faster and maintain them longer than younger people.

In an article in the International Herald Tribune (Dec. 16, 2008), Jane Brody asked, “Is alcohol a tonic or toxin?” To address the question, Brody cited a comprehensive review of risks and benefits of alcohol consumption from research reviewed by Maria Pontes Ferreira and M.K. Suzy Weems in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Risks:
Based on more than three drinks a day, the following risks were identified:

  • Alcohol makes some medical conditions – such as high blood pressure, ulcers and diabetes – worse.
  • When combined with prescription and over-the-counter drugs, alcohol consumption can lead to dangerous, and often deadly, risks.  With about three drinks a day, the risk of bleeding from aspirin increases; when combined with allergy medicines, the risk of drowsiness increases; and when combined with high doses of acetaminophen (Tylenol), the risk increases for liver damage.
  • Alcohol increases hazards of falls, auto accidents and a decline in short-term memory.
  • Alcohol increases the risk for certain cancers, liver cirrhosis, immune system disorders and brain damage.
  • The risk of conflicts with family, friends and coworkers also increases.

Benefits:
Most evidence for the benefits of drinking alcohol is based on population studies that reveal associations, rather than causes and effects.  According to Brody, there have been just a few randomized controlled clinical trials of alcohol that definitively show health benefits.  Given that caveat, here are a few, based on consumption of one drink a day for women and two for men:

  • Alcohol improves appetite and nutrition.
  • Alcohol reduces risk of cardiovascular disease. Based on 100 studies in 25 countries, moderate drinkers 50 and older were less likely to suffer heart attacks and die prematurely than abstainers or heavy drinkers.
  • Alcohol reduces risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.  This is based on emerging data that suggests an association between moderate intake and reduced risk.  Note the use of the term “association” which does not necessarily mean “caused by.”
  • Alcohol improves social relationships and health-related quality of life based on studies in retirement communities.

Not everyone who drinks regularly has a drinking problem and not all problem drinkers drink every day.  When does drinking become a problem?

The NIAAA and the National Institute on Aging suggest getting help if an individual drinks to calm his or her nerves, to forget worries or to reduce depression; gulps down drinks; frequently has more than one drink per day; lies about, or tries to hide, his or her drinking habits; hurts oneself or someone else while drinking; needs more alcohol to get high; feels irritable, resentful or unreasonable when not drinking; or has medical, social or financial worries caused by drinking.

Physicians often do not diagnose an alcohol problem.  According to Brody, they rarely ask their older patients how much they drink.  Overlooking the subject can result in misdiagnosis, medical complications and life-threatening accidents.

The problem is expected to worsen since baby boomers consume more alcohol than previous generations.  And the oldest is now 63 years.

You might ask your friend to review the list of is list of indicators.  Know that older and younger adults benefit from intervention, support and counseling.  The Los Angeles Central Office of Alcoholics Anonymous can be reached at (800) 923-8722, 24-hours a day.

Your friend is fortunate to have you as a caring friend.  Best wishes for a successful dialogue – if needed.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.