You May be surprised to hear that Alcohol Misuse is on the increase, and what may be more surprising is that its mainly amongst the older generation than the young.

… It’s the weekend or you’ve had a hard day at work or a particularly stressful time with the children today, perhaps your husband is a snorer and you need a drink to get to sleep quickly. We all have a time when we want to let our hair down and relax, have a good time and forget our troubles but is this time becoming more and more frequent? Is it more unusual that you or your partner or parent doesn’t have a drink or three on the evening?

Recent research has found that there is a growing demographic within our society who are ‘over indulging‘ in alcohol and putting themselves at numerous risks.

Research suggests that alcohol consumption generally declines with age and the proportion of non-drinkers increases.

The reasons for this decline in consumption are presumably connected to changes in life circumstances and attitudes and, in the later middle aged and older, growing ill health. However, there is evidence that today’s population of older people may be relatively heavier drinkers than previous generations. This could be the result of an effect whereby a generation which has had its formative years at a time of increasing affordability, availability, and social acceptability of alcohol may be more likely to retain the habit of drinking.

In regard to the number and proportion of problem drinkers, another factor is simply that due to longer life expectancy and the ageing of the population there are more elderly people.

In 1991 there were 10.6 million people of pensionable age, a rise of 16% since 1971. It is projected that there will be a further increase of 38%, with 14.6 million people of pensionable age by the year 2031 in the UK. The number of over 85’s is also expected to double between 2010 and 2030.

Currently we have 11.4 million people in the UK over the age of 65. The problems associated with alcohol misuse at this age bracket has been described by Liam. Our Substance Misuse Course and Drug and Alcohol Counselling Course tutor as a “hidden problem” mainly, he explains because of the stigma attached to it.

Luke says as he gets to know his students sometimes they confide in him that the course they are enrolled in is more of a personal journey than a purely educational one and at times they are trying to equip themselves with the knowledge to support a relative or friend because although they realise there is an issue more commonly than not, the other person is oblivious or goes to great lengths to hide the issue and is in self-denial.

There are numerous reasons why people 65 and above start to drink, or regularly drink more than they should:

  • Loneliness
  • Isolation
  • Retirement
  • Boredom
  • Health Issues
  • Decreased mobility

A 2012 briefing report examining trends in hospital admissions for older people with mental and behavioural disorders secondary to the use of alcohol exposed an upward trend in hospital admissions of people over 60 years of age with alcohol-related mental health problems in the last decade. According to Health Episodes Statistics data, there was a 150% rise in the number of admissions between 2002 and 2012, and a 140% increase in the number of over 60 year-olds being admitted to hospital with Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome* over the same period.

* Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome is a form of brain damage caused by alcohol use.

A unit of alcohol is 10 ml of pure alcohol which equates to approximately:

  • Half a pint of normal strength lager
  • A single measure of spirits
  • A small glass of wine contains approximately 1.5 units of alcohol

The NHS recommended maximum units are:

  • Men: 3 to 4 units a day
  • Women:  2 to 3 units per day

Remember readers this is not a target but the maximum amount!

Researchers have identified 3 types of elderly drinkers:

  1. Early-onset drinkers (Survivors): those who have a continuing problem with alcohol which developed in earlier life. Because of the health risks connected to heavy drinking and dependence on alcohol, the lifespan of a problem drinker may be shortened by on average 10 to 15 years.
  2. Late-onset drinkers (Reactors): they begin problematic drinking later in life, often in response to traumatic life events such as the death of a loved one, loneliness, pain, insomnia, retirement, etc.
  3. Intermittent (Binge drinkers): they use alcohol occasionally and sometimes drink to excess which may cause them problems.

It is thought that both the late-onset drinkers and the intermittent or binge drinkers have a high chance of managing their alcohol problem if they have access to appropriate treatment such as counselling and general support and are likely to have a good recovery because they adhere to the suggested treatment programs.

Luke continues to share some of his knowledge with me, saying that a high percentage of over age drinkers often go undiagnosed due to this age range leading less sociable and public lives and in some cases Doctors do not link symptoms that are common signs of ageing such as:

  • Falls
  • Loss of appetite
  • Failing memory
  • And depression.

The Royal College of Physicians once estimated that:

” perhaps up to 60% [of older people] who are admitted to hospital because of confusion, repeated falls at home, recurrent chest infections and heart failure, may have unrecognised alcohol problems. Some are long-standing drinkers who have become old, others started drinking in old age elderly widowers are the most vulnerable group”

Luke also asks us to remember that not everyone that drinks has a problem and if we manage our drinking and treat the alcohol like a toxin, we need not worry too much. However, there is always help available and if it’s not something you can do on your own there are people and organisations out there to help.

Organisations that can help with alcohol issues include:

Drink Aware: 0300 123 1110

Adaction: 020 7017 2747 or 07818 587 696