Is 2017 the year you cut down on your drinking?

It seems you need to become smarter about your alcohol consumption as you age.

If you have been drinking alcohol for many years without changing your drinking habits, you might want to reconsider the quantity you are drinking and how regularly you are drinking it. According to Dr Alice Rota-Bartelink, an expert on alcohol consumption in senior Australians, the main reason that alcohol consumption can be harmful as you age is that your body loses its ability to process that alcohol.

“As you get older your metabolism slows down. Your liver, which is responsible for breaking that alcohol down, doesn’t do its job as well - so there’s a higher level of alcohol in the blood. This can be toxic to your body over time,” she says.

This higher level of toxic blood alcohol can cause significant damage that can have serious health effects, and it can also exacerbate chronic problems such as heart disease, liver disease and diabetes. One chronic illness that is particularly common in older drinkers is alcohol-linked dementia, says Rota-Bartelink.

“Alcohol has a toxic effect on the whole body, but it has a particularly detrimental effect on the brain. Alcohol affects the prefrontal lobe which regulates mood and higher brain functions. If you have higher exposure to alcohol more frequently, then that can lead to a more rapid decline in your brain functioning and that can lead to dementia,” she says.

Balance and coordination gets worse naturally as we age, but frequent alcohol consumption worsens balance further making the chance of a fall more likely. Fractures and dislocations from alcohol-induced falls can have serious implications for the future mobility of people with brittle bones. 

But there is another big health risk to dangerous drinking behaviour as we get older and it has to do with the interaction of alcohol with the medications we take, Rota-Bartelink says. “Alcohol makes many medications more toxic to the body, but the medications can also make alcohol more toxic. Many people don’t know the harmful interactions that their medications are having with their alcohol consumption.”

The damage that alcohol causes in older Australians is often not recorded, says Rota Bartelink. “The health problems associated with risky alcohol consumption in older people are quite often masked. A lot of time it’s difficult to establish that alcohol is the cause or has made the problem worse because there might have been a pre-existing health problem,” she says.

Furthermore, guidelines that establish a safe drinking level for older Australians are not practical, since factors such as age, sex and type of medications they are taking can determine the impact of alcohol in older Australians.

What many Australians don’t realise is that while the risky drinking rates for younger Australians are decreasing year on year, the numbers of older Australians engaging in risky drinking behaviour is growing. In fact, older Australians now represent the largest percentage of Australians engaging in risky drinking behaviour.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Health Survey, approximately 35 per cent of men aged 55-64 drink alcohol at risky levels that can have a damaging effect on their health. This is more than any other age group.

Approximately 14 per cent of women aged 55-64 also drink alcohol to risky levels - more than in any other age group, including women aged 18-24 years.

According to Rota-Bartelink one reason for this is that many retirees whose work and family commitments previously inhibited them from drinking too much, find themselves drinking more regularly than they used to.

“Now that they are retired many will often say ‘I’m not going to work tomorrow’ – and they’re still drinking the same amounts that they were drinking when they were younger,” explains Rota-Bartelink. 

Business and life mentor, Angela Raspass, says she has encountered many older people with drinking problems in her client sessions. Having recovered from an alcohol dependency herself 10 years ago, she now inspires women to find their full potential in business and life.

Raspass says her journey to recovery was through gaining new knowledge about herself and by finding others that could empathise with her problem. “Exploration and finding knowledge was key. I can look back on my situation and see now what the problem was, but I needed to do lots of reading and seminars to know myself better back then,” says Raspass.

“The fellowship movement was also very important to me since social isolation was a killer. Thinking you’re alone is one of the hardest things to cope with. Finding and hearing other people talk about the same problems helped me feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she says.

To read Angela Raspass’ inspiring thoughts about overcoming alcohol dependency, visit www.angelaraspass.com.

If you need help with an alcohol addiction you can contact Alcoholics Anonymous Australia at www.aa.org.au or phone 1300 222 222.

What are your tips for reducing alcohol consumption?

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