Focus on binge Britain ignores silent epidemic of older people's drinking

25 / 05 / 2011

A new briefing paper from Alcohol Concern Cymru concludes that an excessive focus on young people's drinking in town and city centres is leading us to overlook the pressing issue of alcohol consumption by older people.

Hands and a drinkThe briefing paper Hidden harm? Alcohol and older people in Wales highlights that although drinking tends to decline with age, this pattern may conceal serious alcohol related problems amongst some older people. In addition many younger adults are now adopting patterns of heavy drinking that they may well carry on into later life.

Amongst the main conclusions are:

  • A number of factors linked to age, such as bereavement or disruption to lifestyle following retirement, can lead to heavier drinking
  • Healthcare professionals do not always recognise when older people's health problems are linked to alcohol, or may not know how to raise the issue, meaning the alcohol-related problems are left untreated
  • Excessive alcohol consumption is often not be seen by society as a problem beyond a certain age, and so again support may not be provided
  • In spite of this, research has indicated that older people respond to help with alcohol problems as well as or even better than younger people.

Andrew Misell, Alcohol Concern Cymru Manager, said:

"There's been a lot of public attention focussed on young people's binge drinking on the streets of our towns and cities. But we mustn't overlook some of the more hidden problems that alcohol can cause. With the number of people over retirement age increasing, some researchers have even talked about a silent epidemic of older people's alcohol issues. We are calling for positive action to get to grips with this, so that more people in Wales can enjoy a healthy retirement."

Age Cymru's Health Initiatives Officer, Rhian Pearce said:

"Alcohol abuse is a problem for people of all ages, but it is more likely to go unrecognised among older people, with an estimated 1 in 6 older men, and 1 in 15 older women drinking enough to harm themselves. About a third of older people with drinking problems develop them in later life and they may struggle to access help for this issue. Age Cymru supports this report and wants to see health professionals appropriately trained to identify drinking problems in older people. The Welsh Government also needs to support alcohol treatment services that are suitable for older people."  

Alcohol Concern is making the following recommendations to help make sure older people in Wales get the support they need to enjoy alcohol healthily:

  • Professionals working with older people need to be aware of alcohol misuse, and recognise that some health problems traditionally attributed to the ageing process may be signs of alcohol misuse
  • Better joint working is needed between local older people's services and alcohol treatment services to ensure that older people are able to access alcohol treatment in ways that suit them
  • Studies are needed of whether current unit guidance and screening methods for alcohol misuse are relevant to older people.