October 24, 2019
By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) - Older adults who take many common medicines may be more likely to fall and be injured when they drink alcohol, a recent study suggests.
Researchers focused on a wide variety of medicines that can have potentially dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol including certain blood pressure treatments, allergy pills, painkillers, psychiatric medicines and diabetes therapies.
Mixed with alcohol, many of these medicines might cause falls because of drowsiness or sharp dips in blood pressure or blood sugar, the study team theorized.
To find out, they surveyed 1,457 adults aged 65 and older about their use of these medicines and about their drinking habits, then assessed how many people had falls over the next two to four years.
The fall risk overall didn't appear higher for people who used certain medicines that are thought to mix poorly with alcohol. But people who drank and used medicines known to cause sedation or drowsiness were 50% more likely to sustain a fall and 62% more likely to have a fall resulting in injuries by the end of the study.
"Many medications acting on the central nervous system, when combined with alcohol, may result in enhanced sedation which increases an older adults' risk of falling and experiencing an injurious fall," said Grainne Cousins, senior author of the study and a researcher at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland.
It's not clear from the study how much alcohol, if any, is safe to consume when taking drugs known to be sedating when mixed with alcohol, Cousins said by email.
Falls are a leading cause of injury-related disability and death among older adults, researchers note in the journal Age and Ageing.
Most older adults who live independently also consume alcohol, the study team notes, and many of them also take common prescription drugs that can have dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol.
At the start of the current study, participants were 72 years old on average and 64% said they drank alcohol. About 12% of them took at least one medication that researchers theorized might lead to falls when mixed with alcohol, and 5% took two or more such medicines.
Just 50 people, or 3% of participants, drank alcohol and took prescriptions known to cause sedation. These drugs included opioids, antipsychotics, antidepressants, and certain medicines for epilepsy and nerve pain.
After four years, 608 people, or 42%, had at least one fall and 18% were injured in a fall.
The study wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how any specific medicines might directly cause falls on their own or mixed with alcohol.
One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked data on participants' use of a wide variety of nonprescription medicines that are also thought to have a sedating effect made worse by alcohol.
Even so, the results suggest that older adults should discuss their drinking habits with their doctors to minimize the potential for falls to happen as a result of mixing prescriptions with alcohol, Cousins advised.
Age Ageing 2019.
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