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Calls for safer drinking levels for over 65s


Newcastle University academics have called for changes to be made to the recommended safe levels of drinking for over 65s and also special alcohol advice to be made available for older people.

The call comes as the team from Newcastle and Sunderland Universities publish a paper which looks at the reasons why many older people continue to drink to levels hazardous or harmful to their health.

The paper, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, found that many older people may not recognise they are heavy drinkers if they don’t see themselves as dependent and therefore having a problem.

As part of the study the academics carried out interviews and conducted focus groups with 53 men and women aged between 65 and 90. They wanted to find out the reasons why so many of people in that age group continue to drink to unhealthy levels, and what their attitudes are to that drinking.

Current recommended safe levels of drinking are 14 units a week for women and 21 for men. But many of those interviewed were very blasé about high alcohol intake and questioned health practitioners who cautioned them to drink less.

Dr Graeme Wilson, at the Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, who led the study, said: “Many older people are drinking to a level that is having a long-term impact on their health, even if the damage they are doing is not always immediately apparent.”

Drinking a 'skinful'

Previous studies have shown that older drinking is a worsening problem. In England, 28% of men over 65 years and 14% of women over 65 now drink alcohol more than five times per week (1). This is a particular problem in the North East of England where for example, the rate of hospital admissions due to alcohol related cause among those aged 50-79 have been found to be higher than those for England as a whole (2).

One of the women interviewed said she drank a bottle of wine every day, about 63 units a week, but said she didn’t have a problem because it didn’t have a big effect on her. “If somebody found me in the corner drunk that would probably shock me into stopping but that has never happened….,” she said.

Others who were interviewed talked of having ‘skinfuls’, or five or six pints and thought there was no problem with that because they didn’t suffer any immediate adverse effects that they linked to drinking.

But heavy drinking in this age group is strongly linked with depression and anxiety and longer term health problems. Metabolism is slower in later life, and older people are very likely to take prescribed medicines that can interact with alcohol. For these reasons heavy drinking can have a bigger impact on the lives of older people than the younger generation. And so far public health messages about harmful drinking have not been as effective for the older age group as they have for the younger.

Older people saw drinking alcohol as a positive way to relax and be sociable with friends and family. Chronic pain, loneliness and bereavement were identified as likely to lead to heavier drinking in later life.

A need to target older drinkers

Dr Katie Haighton, also at the Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, said “Alcohol interventions are not working for older people for many reasons. A lot of those we interviewed said the messages around alcohol were very confusing. There is a need to develop new approaches to target the older population, for example longer in-home support, tailored information on the risks from alcohol in later life, or health workers with specific training on older people’s needs.

“We also think the Government really needs to start looking at lowering the recommended limit for alcohol consumption in those over 65.”

This research builds on Newcastle University’s work as part of the Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age, the University’s response to the societal challenge of ageing, seeking new ways to make the most of the extensive opportunities associated with increasing human longevity, while at the same time solving some of the problems.

The study was organised through Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health and funded by Age UK.

Reference: A Qualitative Study of Alcohol, Health and Identities among UK Adults in Later Life
Graeme B. Wilson, Eileen F. S. Kaner, Ann Crosland, Jonathan Ling, Karen McCabe, Catherine A. Haighton

(1.) NHS Information Centre. Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2011 NS. Office for National Statistics, 2011 May 26.
(2.) Arami DS, Chappel D, Sutcliffe D, Walrond S, Bailey K, Barzey C. Alcohol and Health in North East England. Newcastle: North East Public Health Observator, 2006.

published on: 8 August 2013