While it will be weeks before the definitive cause of Whitney Houston's death is determined, the news of the 48-year-old singer's passing has spawned a new discussion topic around the virtual water coolers where baby boomers congregate. It goes something like this: Who among us hasn't, at least on occasion (if not with some regularity), washed down an anti-anxiety pill with a glass of wine? And is it really a potentially lethal thing to do?
Despite the warning labels on the prescription pill bottle against mixing our drugs with alcohol, the fact is, people regularly do it, said Dr. David Sack, CEO of Promises Treatment Centers. Having wine with dinner, followed by a prescription sleeping pill as a nightcap is all too common, especially among those 50 and older -- a demographic whose overall use of illicit drugs has been increasing.
"Most people don't perceive alcohol as a drug," Sack said. He notes that many women who don't consider themselves alcoholics are binge drinkers -- downing three or more drinks in a two-hour period. "They don't think of alcohol as a drug, even though they are getting a buzz from it."
Add the fact that people have a false sense of security about prescription drugs. "Because they come from a pharmacy, are ordered by a doctor," said Sack, "people think 'this must be safe.'" The combination of minimizing the impact of alcohol and underestimating the risk of prescription drugs is what causes the problem, he said.
Mixing anti-anxiety medicines and alcohol is especially dangerous, said Sack, because they both work on the same receptors in the brain, and both increase sedation. Sack offers this typical pattern: A person feels distraught and drinks first, then takes anti-anxiety medicine because they want to fall asleep, but then drinks some more because the anti-anxiety pill isn't absorbed quickly enough. "Now they are at toxic levels," said Sack. Benzodiazepines are hard to overdose on if that's all you are taking, but when mixed with alcohol, trouble can ensue, said Sack.
Downing this potentially lethal mixture was a trap that ensnared 53-year-old Michelle McGuire of Malibu, Calif. She said that before she gained sobriety eight months ago, she would down six or seven bottles of champagne in a 24-hour period, mixed with about eight valium, five or six Oxycontin or four or five Vicodin. She said she slipped into this pattern of abuse following the death of several loved ones and a divorce.
McGuire said her days were spent in her room, venturing out only when her alcohol or pill supplies were running low. Her moment of reckoning came when her two daughters said they were abandoning her because they couldn't bear to witness her self-destruction any longer.
"My daughters would come into my room and put their hand over my nose and mouth to see if I was still breathing," she relates. "When you are mixing drugs and alcohol, you forget how much you have taken. I would never remember, did I just take a Valium or was that the second one?"
McGuire spent four months at a Promises Treatment Center and now lives in a SobaLiving facility.
Her relations with her daughters have been restored. One of them responded to the news of Whitney Houston's 18-year-old daughter being hospitalized twice over her mother's death and commented, "That would have been us, Mom."
The use of illicit drugs has been increasing among boomers: 5.8 percent of people age 50 to 59 used illicit drugs in 2010, up from 2.7 percent in 2002, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The drugs involved included marijuana, heroin and stimulants including cocaine. Sack added that he has seen post 50s who didn't smoke pot for decades pick it up again in retirement.
Boomers also seem to approach the mixing of alcohol with prescriptions meds with a certain blasé, he said. While we all seem to know we're not supposed to do it, there is an attitude of disbelief that actual harm will come. But one man's moderation is another's lethal dose and as we age, our inclination toward sleep aids and anti-anxiety meds pushes us in a direction where we could get in trouble, Sack said.
Perhaps it just takes a few more celebrity and high-profile deaths to teach us the lesson that the wrong mix of prescription drugs alone can be lethal. Actor Heath Ledger's death in 2008 was ruled by the New York City medical examiner's office as an accidental overdose of prescription medications including painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills. He suffered an "acute intoxication," the report said, by combining oxycodone and hydrocodone (both painkillers), diazepam, alprazolam and temazepam (all anti-anxiety drugs), and doxylamine (an over-the-counter antihistamine used as a sleep aid).
Midlife can be stressful, and not being able to either get to sleep or stay asleep is a problem that plagues post 50s. Here are some natural ways to reduce anxiety and get a good night's rest.