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Over-age drinking – are we at risk?

Heavy drinking brings up images of young people out at the weekend. But what about those of a more advanced age who enjoy a tipple? Lee Rodwell investigates 

How much are you drinking? “My partner used to bring me a glass of wine if I was still working when the TV evening news came on,” says John, 62, a retired lecturer. 

“I’d have another glass while cooking supper and then we’d finish the bottle over the meal. Sometimes we’d open a second one. That happened most nights – and if we had friends over, or went out for a meal we’d also drink gin and tonics before and brandies after.” 

John says he has recently decided to cut down for health reasons and tries to have two or three dry days every week. When he does drink, he tries to stick to one glass of wine.

“I think a lot of it was habit,” he says. “Now when six o’clock comes round and I fancy a drink I go and make a cup of tea!”

Middle class and half-cut 

John and his partner are typical examples of well-heeled older drinkers who are more likely to drink every day, often at home, than any other age group. 

According to the Health Survey for England, those who drink the most – well above the recommended alcohol limits – are in late middle age or older.

For example, men in their 60s and women aged 55 and over are at least five times as likely to drink on at least five days a week, compared with younger generations.

Not only do older people drink more frequently on average, they also drink more. The survey found that almost three out of 10 men aged 65 to 74 consumed more than the officially recommended limit of 21 units per week.

Women aged 55 to 64 were the heaviest female drinkers; almost a quarter admitted drinking more than their recommended 14 units a week. And the better off people were, the more they were likely to drink.

Lyndsay, 63, thinks it’s because there there’s no stigma about drinking any more. “My mother rarely went into a pub, never drank alone and occasionally had a glass of wine with a meal or a sherry at Christmas,” she says. 

“But I’ve been drinking all my life. Most social occasions – from family weddings to nights out with my book club friends – are lubricated by alcohol. And it’s easy to buy. You just put a few cans or bottles in your supermarket trolley. Or you order a case of wine to be delivered at your door.”

Getting started later in life  

According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, not all older drinkers have been drinking alcohol all their lives. Some, their research suggests, only start drinking more heavily in later years

Their factsheet on older people’s drinking habits says that the “sudden disruption in lifestyle caused by retirement and bereavement” is thought to be a major contributory factor in some older people going on to develop a drinking problem. 

This may be as a result of coping with stress, but is also down to decreased social activity, isolation and loneliness. 

But does this mean we should all think about cutting down? Yes, says Jackie Ballard, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern. She says that “harmful drinking” is a real issue for middle-aged and older people. 

“Many of this group are regularly drinking above recommended limits, often in their own homes where it can be harder to keep track of how much you’re consuming.
 
“These are the people who, if they develop alcohol related illnesses, tend to require the most complex and expensive health care due to the mental and physical problems caused by drinking too much.” 

Putting your health at risk? 

As alcohol is directly linked to more than 60 medical conditions, this is why official recommendations are that people stick to drinking no more than two to three units a day, and making sure there are two to three alcohol-free days during the week to allow the body to recover. 

Older people account for over a quarter of alcohol-related admissions to hospitals and are the only age group to see a rise over the past year.

Dr Tony Rao, Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, agrees. 

He says: “Older men and women now account for over a quarter of alcohol related admissions to hospitals in England and are the only age group to see a rise over the past year.”

Judy, 62, decided to cut down on her drinking after she went to a talk by a dietician who gave a vivid illustration of how unhealthy drinking can be, by putting a selection of drinks on a table with a food treat next to them.

The calories in alcohol have no nutritional value – they’re empty calories. But alcoholic drinks are also full of sugar. 

Judy says: “So spending an evening drinking was like spending an evening eating cakes. I looked at the large glass of wine and the doughnut next to it and realised that I’d never dream of eating a doughnut every night.

“So I’ve stopped drinking regularly. I feel better for it - and I’ve even lost a little weight!”  

Know your units

Men and women are now advised not to drink more than 14 units a week – and not in one session. If you drink 14 units a week you should spread them over three days or more. 

A unit depends on the size of the drink (pint/ml) and the strength of the alcohol (ABV), but for example: 

  • Standard glass wine  (175ml, ABV 12%) = 2.1 units
  • Large glass wine (250ml, ABV 12%) = 3 units
  • Bottle of lager/beer/cider (330ml, ABV 5%) = 1.7 units
  • Pint of lower-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%) = 2 units
  • Pint of higher-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 5.2%) = 3 units

How to cut back

Have alcohol-free days: Build up to having an alcohol-free week or month. Note the benefits – are you sleeping better, do you have more energy? 

Find alternative stress-busters: Instead of having a drink to wind down at the end of the day, have a cup of herbal tea or go and soak in the bath. 

Switch to lower alcohol drinks: Check the label for the ABV (alcoholic strength by volume) or ask the bar staff. The lower the better. 

Become a mixologist: Have a mocktail instead of a cocktail. There are plenty of recipes online.

Dilute your drinks: Have a white wine spritzer or a shandy.

Sit at a table in the pub or wine bar: People drink more slowly when sitting down than when standing. 

Keep tabs on those units: Download the NHS Drinks Tracker app to your phone so you can see how much you’re drinking.

Don’t finish the bottle: If you’re sharing a bottle with a partner or friend, don’t feel you have to drink it all. Put the cork back in and it should keep for a couple of days. 

More tips at drinkaware.co.uk  

This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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