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Many older Australians are putting their health at risk by mixing alcohol with commonly prescribed medications, a new research program has found.

Led by Edith Cowan University (ECU) researcher Dr Stephen Bright, the study examined 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 drank alcohol at hazardous levels, 92% were also taking at least one medication that places them at greater risk of serious side-effects.

Importantly, people were unaware of the potential risks involved and weren’t telling their GP or pharmacist about their alcohol use.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in 2018, the majority of 1,740 drug-induced deaths in Australia resulted from prescription medications, with alcohol a contributing factor.

Dr Bright said the study highlights the rising issue of older Australians increasingly drinking risky levels of alcohol and the potential for harm from 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.”

Dr Bright said the study, recently published in Australian Journal on Ageing, found mixing alcohol and medications often resulted in 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. In some cases, it can be fatal.”

While new National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines state people should drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week to reduce the health risks from alcohol, Dr Bright explains there are no tailored guidelines for older people and argues alcohol use should be monitored more regularly by healthcare professionals and patients themselves as part of general health check-ups.

“Self-reporting is also important for people to think about – if you’re prescribed any medications or are taking any supplements or others drugs, talk to your doctor about your alcohol use and how this may affect it.

“We need to encourage more people to have the conversation with their doctor, pharmacist or healthcare professionals so that they can look at alternative medications, or give advice on what a safe level of drinking is, if any.”