A new survey finds that adults aged 45 and over are more than three times as likely to drink alcohol almost every day as those under 45. This could mean that the middle aged population is ignoring the serious health risks associated with excessive drinking. The age disparity is most pronounced among women. Those aged 65 and over are 12 times more likely than those aged between 16 and 24 to drink on a near-daily basis according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The 2010 General Lifestyle Survey, which was completed by more than 13,000 people across Britain, covers topics including drinking, smoking and general health. Its findings also showed that people aged between 45 and 64 typically consume more alcohol per week than any other age group.
Furthermore the age difference and disparity is reversed for binge drinking, with younger people far more likely than their older counterparts to consume large amounts of alcohol in one go. Sixteen per cent of men aged 16 to 24 reported consuming more than 12 units on at least one day, while this figure was just 2% among those aged over 65. Again the disparity is more pronounced among women. Only 1% of over-65s drank more than nine units in one day, compared with 12% for the 16-24 group.
Variances between socio-economic groups are also apparent, with those in managerial and professional roles tending to drink more than those in intermediate or routine employment. This trend is particularly clear among women, where two-thirds in managerial or professional positions drink alcohol in a typical week, compared to 44% in routine and manual jobs.
The Department of Health recommends that men should not regularly drink more than three or four units a day, with women advised to stick to two to three units. Eric Appleby, the chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said this was “the hidden truth about alcohol and Middle England”. “Many over-45s drink daily, and those from professional or managerial households drink more, especially women”, he added.
“Whilst drinking is decreasing amongst younger age groups, the middle-aged middle classes are taking unnoticed risks with their health, increasing their likelihood of suffering illnesses such as liver disease, stroke and cancer,” he said.
Chris Sorek, the chief executive of Drinkaware who drew attention to the health risks older people are imposing upon themselves by drinking regularly added, “Despite frequent images in the news of young adults sprawled on pavements after a night out on the town, today's research confirms Drinkaware's evidence that 25 to 44-year-old working professionals are drinking more heavily and more regularly than young adults.” “Although it can be easy to find excuses to drink after a long day, many people are unaware that they are putting themselves at risk by drinking more than they think. Regularly going over the unit guidelines has serious implications for your health, from disturbed sleep and weight gain to cancer, heart and liver disease, which has no warning signs.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) last year warned of the growing problem of older people’s drinking. Its report, Our Invisible Addicts, published last June, concluded that a third of older people with alcohol use problems developed them in later life - often as a result of life changes such as retirement or bereavement, or feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression.
Prof Sir Gilmore, special advisor to the Royal College of Physicians and Chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said, “It is worrying when people are drinking virtually every day. It means they are nearly always drinking at home, and drinking home measures, so they are more likely to be exceeding safe limits. Someone who is drinking every day needs to ask themselves if they are in danger of joining the 1.5m alcohol dependent people in this country.”
Professor Tony Rao, a consultant in old age psychiatry and one of the authors of the RCP report, said, “This is such a hidden problem – older people drink behind closed doors. In my clinical practice I see many older people suffering the negative effects of their drinking – both physically and mentally. We see older people who have been drinking suffering falls and being admitted to hospital, only to be given the all clear and be sent home to begin the cycle again. We see others who suffer mental health problems such as depression or alcohol related dementia. There are a variety of problems but they are usually below the radar because they do not involve death or liver disease.”
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports calls for a minimum price per unit to be imposed on alcohol but it is not clear whether this will be included in official policy. A new alcohol strategy is due to be published this year.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said, “Drinking to excess is bad for our health. A minority of people do themselves serious harm through drink. We should not let drink control us; we should support people to drink responsibly. We recently launched a new Change4Life campaign to highlight the dangers of drinking too much. And we will set out a comprehensive approach to tackling alcohol harm in our forthcoming alcohol strategy.”
The survey, of around 8,000 households in Britain, also included questions on smoking. In 2010, 20 per cent of the adult population were cigarette smokers compared to 45 per cent in 1974.