Successful oldies more likely to drink too much – study

Harmful drinking was defined as more than 22 units a week for men and 15 for women (file)
Harmful drinking was defined as more than 22 units a week for men and 15 for women (file)

Older people who have enjoyed successful careers, good health and vibrant social lives are more likely to be heavy drinkers, researchers in the UK have found.

The findings suggest harmful drinking among over-50s is a "middle class phenomenon" that could be a hidden health and social crisis.

Harmful drinking was defined as more than 22 units a week for men and 15 for women. A standard 330ml beer with 4 percent alcohol is equivalent to 1.3 units; a 175ml glass of wine with 12 percent alcohol is two.

Men who drank more than 50 units and women more than 35 were defined as high risk.

More than 9000 participants representative of England's over-50 population were asked questions about their income, education, health, smoking habits, mental health, marital status, caring responsibilities, religious beliefs, employment and social engagement.

What they found was the more women earned, the more they drank. The same link wasn't found for men.

In both sexes, smoking, higher educational achievements and good health were linked to a greater risk of harmful drinking.

Men who lived on their own were more likely to be high-risk drinkers, especially if they were white. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no link between harmful drinking and loneliness or depression in either sex.

Religious beliefs had no bearing on how much both men and women drank, but women were likely to ease up if they had people to care for.

"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," the researchers noted in the study, published today in journal BMJ Open.

"Our findings suggest that harmful drinking in later life is more prevalent among people who exhibit a lifestyle associated with affluence and with a 'successful' ageing process."

Men's harmful drinking peaked at age 60, before tailing off, while women saw a steady decline as they aged.

Comparing the data to previous studies, UK drinkers are shifting away from having a daily tipple towards binge-drinking, "characterised by non-daily drinking, irregular heavy and very heavy drinking episodes (such as during weekends and at festivities) and a higher level of acceptance of drunkenness in public", suggesting the findings could also be applicable to New Zealand.

The researchers say health authorities in the UK should consider targeting over-50s in future anti-drinking campaigns.

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