Alcohol and medication a dangerous cocktail for older Australians

A new research program has found many older Australians who consume alcohol are putting their health at serious risk when taking commonly prescribed medications.

An innovative study, led by Edith Cowan University (ECU) researcher Dr Stephen Bright, looked at the alcohol and medication consumption of 72 older adults discharged from a Victorian-based alcohol and other drugs treatment service.
It found that of those who were drinking alcohol at hazardous levels, 92 per cent were also taking at least one medication that placed them at high risk of serious adverse side-effects.

A risky mix

In 2018, the majority of the 1,740 drug-induced deaths in Australia were from prescription medications and alcohol was often a contributing factor.
Dr Bright, from the School of Medical and Health Sciences, said the study not only highlighted the growing issue of older Australians increasingly drinking risky levels of alcohol, but also the potential for dire outcomes when mixing drinks with prescription drugs.
“While drinking levels in young people are reducing, we’re seeing older Australians actually increasing their alcohol consumption,” he said.
“This trend is concerning because older Australians are at increased risk of experiencing health complications from alcohol since they are more likely to have a chronic illness that alcohol can exacerbate and make more difficult to treat.
“They are also likely to be prescribed an average of four medications and be taking several herbal supplements.
“What we’ve found is that when people then mix these medications with alcohol, there’s potential for a whole range of serious side-effects.
“For example, alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of some medications and that could lead to psychiatric symptoms, stomach ulcers or cardiovascular events. And in some cases, it can be fatal.”

Guidelines needed

Dr Bright said while National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines released late last year say people should drink “no more than 10 standard drinks per week” to reduce the health risks from alcohol, there are no specific guidelines for older people.
He is calling for alcohol use to be monitored more often by health care professionals, and patients themselves, as part of general health check-ups.
“Particularly with older people who are taking more and more medications, we need to be careful to look at how they interact with each other and how they may interact with alcohol,” he said.
“Self-reporting is also important for people to think about – if you’re prescribed any medications or are taking any supplements or other drugs, talk to your doctor about your alcohol use and how this may affect it.”

Unknown risk

Dr Bright said an important finding of the study is that people were not aware of the potential risks involved and weren’t telling their GP or pharmacist about their alcohol use.
“There’s not enough awareness about what a safe level of drinking is, particularly for older people and those also taking medications,” he said.
“We need to encourage more people to have the conversation with their doctor, pharmacist or health care professional so that they can look at alternative medications or give advice on what a safe level of drinking is, if any.”
‘Medication use among older Australians seeking alcohol and other drug treatment’ was recently published in Australasian Journal on Ageing.