Harmful drinking could be threatening the health of successful over 50s, say researchers

Over 50s health and drinking

Researchers have warned that there may be a 'hidden health and social problem' threatening the health of affluent over-50s, a demographic who typically otherwise eat well and enjoy an active lifestyle.

Professor Jose Iparraguirre, Chief Economist at AGE UK who led the research published in the online journal BMJ Open, says: "Our analysis challenges popular perceptions of who is drinking too much."

"It suggests that public health messaging is not reaching high income groups who are most at risk. Because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger."

The findings were based on 9250 responses to the two most recent English Longitudinal Survey of Aging (ELSA), a representative sample of those aged 50 or above living independently in England.

Participants were asked questions relating to a range of lifestyle and socio-economic factors, including general health and wellbeing, diet, physical activity, smoking, educational attainment, social engagement, employment status and marital status. They were also asked questions relating to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Analysis of the responses suggests that the current group of over-50s may be continuing drinking habits established during their younger years, with single men, including those who are separated or divorced, more likely to drink more than the recommended weekly amount. Among women, loneliness, younger age and higher income were all associated factors with an increased likelihood of becoming a higher risk drinker.

Researchers found that the risk of harmful drinking peaked for men in their early 60's and then gradually waned, whereas for women risky drinking dropped with increased age.

"We can sketch - at the risk of much simplification - the problem of harmful drinking among people aged 50 or over in England as a middle class phenomenon: people in better health, higher income, with higher educational attainment and socially more active are more likely to drink at harmful levels." conclude the researchers.

John Larsen, Director of Evidence and Impact for alcohol education charity Drinkaware, says of the findings: "We know from our own research that older people could potentially be sleepwalking into long term health problems as a result of their drinking patterns. In fact half of 45-64 year olds who drink to harmful levels told us that they believe moderate drinking is good for your health and the same proportion think they are unlikely to have increased health problems in later life if they continue to drink at their current level.

“The findings published today should be viewed in the light of Office for National  Statistics (ONS) data which shows that whilst those in higher managerial and professional jobs are drinking more, their employees are more likely to die from alcohol related causes. This may be because those workers are more likely to have poorer overall health, are less likely to seek medical advice at the first sign of symptoms and are more likely to engage in heavy drinking.

“Regularly drinking above the lower risk limits can increase your tolerance to the short-term effects of alcohol – but not to the strain it’s putting on your liver. As your tolerance increases, you’re more likely to drink more. This habitual behaviour could also put you at an increased risk of becoming alcohol dependent.  Just because you don’t feel like you are drinking enough to get drunk, doesn’t mean you aren’t damaging your health. This is one of the main reasons it’s important to give your liver a break by taking regular days off from drinking.”

How much is too much?

The NHS Choices website lists typical drinks and their respective units, and also features a useful drinks diary tool to help individuals ascertain if their drinking habits may be harming their health long-term.

The NHS guideline for men is a maximum 21 units - equivalent to nine pints of beer or two bottles of wine per week - is considered harmful. Those 21 units should ideally be spread throughout the week with a daily limit of 3-4 units.

For women, the guideline is 14 units, equivalent to approximately one and a half bottles of wine per week with a daily limit of 2-3 units.

A standard (175ml) glass of wine typically contains 2.1 units of alcohol.

Wine Glasses

What harm can it do?

According to NHS Choices, most people who have alcohol-related health problems aren't necessarily alcoholics. Rather, they are individuals who have regularly drunk more than the recommended levels for a prolonged period of time.

Contrary to popular belief, there is actually no guaranteed 'safe' level of alcohol consumption, and health problems are not limited to 'binge drinkers', however if you stay within the recommended daily limit the risks of suffering associated health problems are lower than those who exceed it.

According to the NHS, health problems usually emerge after a number of years, by which time serious health conditions may have developed. Cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure, heart disease and an increased risk of cancers affecting the mouth, neck and throat and breast cancer in women are some of the more serious consequences of long-term heavy drinking.

Less serious consequences of regular heavy drinking include sleep problems, depression, fatigue, weight gain and sexual dysfunction.

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Georgie Fenn, writes most of our news articles and social media posts.