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Here's to You: Alcohol and meds can be lethal mix for senior citizens

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, which is intended to educate people about the consequences of alcohol-related problems.

Millions of older adults drink alcoholic beverages. Some of them drink too much, which can harm their health and lead to safety problems.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if someone has a drinking problem. Some signs of drinking, such as falls and depression, can be mistaken for other physical or mental conditions or other conditions related to aging.

Elderly alcohol abusers can be divided into two general types: the "hardy survivors," those who have been abusing alcohol for many years and have reached 65, and the "late onset" group, composed of those who begin abusing alcohol later in life. The latter group's alcohol abuse is often triggered by changes in life such as retirement, death or separation from a spouse or family member, a friend or a pet, health concerns, reduced income, impairment of sleep and or family conflicts.

As people age, they may become more sensitive to alcohol's effects. This means that older adults can experience the effects of alcohol, such as slurred speech and lack of coordination, more readily than when they were younger. Over time, someone whose drinking habits haven't changed may find he or she has a problem.

Many older adults take prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and herbal remedies. Drinking alcohol can cause certain medicines to not work properly and other medicines to become more dangerous or even deadly. Mixing alcohol and some medicines can cause sleepiness, confusion, or lack of coordination, which may lead to accidents and injuries.

Depending on the type of medicine, doing so can result in increased risk of stomach or intestinal bleeding or liver damage.

Read the labels on all medications and follow the directions. Some medication labels warn people not to drink alcohol when taking the medicine. Ask a doctor or pharmacist whether it's okay to drink alcohol while taking a certain medicine.

Among other reasons this issue flies under the radar is they are not interacting with law enforcement. Few older adults go out to bars and drink heavily. Instead, many drink alone in the privacy of their own homes - which keeps them from getting the help they need.

There is no risk of losing their job. Since most senior citizens are retired, their problem drinking does not affect them in the work place - another factor that keeps the issue shrouded in secrecy.

Remember -- you can't make a person deal with a drinking problem. You can offer support and get help for yourself. If you think you have a drinking problem, talk to a health care professional like your doctor.

This article is made possible with Older Americans Act dollars from the Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging. Call the Senior LinkAge Line at 800-333-2433 to speak with an information specialist, or check out our website at is an online directory of services designed to help people in Minnesota find human services, information and referral, financial assistance and other forms of help.