Mixing medication and alcohol is common among seniors despite dangers

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Researchers recently explored the concurrent use of medication and alcohol among older people in the United Kingdom.

The use of prescription medications together with alcohol can cause significant problems because certain medications can interact with alcohol. This can be particularly concerning for people who are 50 years and older who are more likely to be prescribed drugs that can interact with alcohol. Research has shown that mixing alcohol with medications is common in older people. Researchers in the United Kingdom explored the use of medication and alcohol, as well as the use of alcohol for self-medicating purposes. Their results were published in PLOS ONE.

In this qualitative study, researchers conducted 24 individual interviews and three focus group interviews to examine the medication and alcohol use behaviour of people over 50 years of age in the United Kingdom. The researchers prepared topic guides for the interviews and focus groups. They asked participants whether they were taking prescription medications, whether it was affected by alcohol and how, and whether their doctor had discussed it with them.

They found specific themes regarding medication and alcohol from the analysis of the interview and focus group responses.

These four themes were:

1. Mixing alcohol and medication despite potential consequences

Some participants cited their desire for alcohol to be so strong that they continued to mix their medication with alcohol while recognizing the potential risks of their concurrent use. Some even continued to combine their medications with alcohol despite experiencing the side effects of mixing the two, and others continued because they didn’t experience any side effects at all.

2. Healthcare professionals’ lack of awareness of alcohol use

Many participants noted that their doctors were not aware of their alcohol consumption. One participant said their doctor never asked about her alcohol use, and another participant explained that his doctor never warned him that medications could potentially interact with alcohol.

3. Prescription medication as a reason for reducing or stopping alcohol use

Some participants understood the dangers of mixing medication and alcohol and reduced or stopped their alcohol consumption after being prescribed medication. Some changed their drinking behaviour due to past negative experiences or simply due to advice from their doctors.

4. Self-medicating with alcohol

Finally, participants who were self-medicating with alcohol commonly did so to cope with physical pain, sleep, or mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. However, some participants described that drinking alcohol helps with their depression, while others described alcohol as a cause of their depression.

The findings from this study are consistent with previous research that revealed the combined use of medication and alcohol is common among older people. It is also consistent with research that suggests older people commonly consume alcohol to self-medicate for pain, sleep, stress, and other mental health problems. The study’s use of focus groups to assess social belief and attitudes in the responses strengthened their results.

This study is the first to evaluate the use of mixing alcohol and medication in the UK among older people. However, this also limits the generalizability of results, and future research should explore these findings in other populations.

Healthcare professionals should recognize the importance of considering alcohol consumption when prescribing and dispensing medications. Patients should be made aware of the consequences of mixing alcohol and medication, and evidence-based guidelines among older people may be necessary to help fill in this gap.

Written by Maggie Leung, PharmD

Reference: Haighton, C., Kidd, J., O’Donnell, A., Wilson, G., Mccabe, K., & Ling, J. (2018). ‘I take my tablets with the whiskey’: A qualitative study of alcohol and medication use in mid to later life. Plos One,13(10).doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0205956

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