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Warning that over-65s consuming alcohol at ‘unsafe levels’


One in five older people who drink alcohol are consuming it at unsafe levels, according to a UK study, sparking calls for more focus on the issue in primary care.

The research, by King’s College London and published in the journal BMJ Open, found men drinking over 21 units of alcohol per week and women drinking 14 units were more likely to be of higher socio-economic status.

“This research highlights that… we need be more aware of the risk of older people, especially men, drinking excessively”

Mark Ashworth

The researchers looked at the GP records of 27,991 people aged 65 and over in the London Borough of Lambeth.

They identified 9,248 older people who had reported consuming alcohol, of which 1,980 drank at unsafe levels.

They found unsafe drinkers were more likely to be male, younger and have higher socio-economic status.

Men were more likely to be unsafe drinkers than women – 46% of people in the study were male, but they were 60% of the drinkers and 65% of the unsafe drinkers.

Lead study author Dr Tony Rao said: “This study shows the need for greater awareness of the potential for alcohol related harm in older people, particularly those of higher socio-economic status.”

The median alcohol consumption was six units per week for all over-65s who reported drinking.

“As the Baby Boomer generation become seniors, they represent an ever increasing population of older people drinking at levels that pose a risk to their health”

Tony Rao

However, the top 5% of alcohol drinkers reported consuming more than 49 units per week for men and more than 23 units per week for women.

Study author Dr Mark Ashworth called on primary care staff to be more aware of the risk of older people, especially men, drinking excessively.

“Reducing alcohol misuse is important to prevent premature death and serious negative health effects, such as alcoholic liver disease, which are big burden on our health system,” he said.

“Alcohol excess carries additional risks in the older population such as falls and confusion,” said Dr Ashworth.

He added: “Based on our findings, the elderly who were most at risk were those from the white British population rather than from an ethnic minority, and those who were wealthier and better educated rather than those from a more deprived background.”

Patients of white ethnicity comprised 59% of the study population, but were 68% of those who reported drinking alcohol and 80% of the unsafe drinkers.

Meanwhile, those of Irish ethnicity made up 5% of the study population, but 6% of the alcohol drinkers and 8% of the unsafe drinkers.


Readers' comments (9)

  • Pussy

    More Nanny State.

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  • Yeah... streets of Britain full of drunken pensioners fighting, throwing up and lying unconscious in the gutter every night. Er, sorry, that should have read teenagers.

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  • Pussy, you have been indoctrinated by people with vested interests to think in terms of "nanny state" when you are just being presented with statistics,

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  • Presenting people with statistics is the easy way out. It's interpretation that counts. What about all those statistics, pushed down our throats for years by so-called experts, "proving" that dietary fat, and not sugar, was causing the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics? If that wasn't indoctrination by people with vested interests, I don't know what was.

    I would want to see firm statistics proving that the over-65s are overburdening the NHS by demanding treatment for alcohol-related illnesses. And that would be the only viable reason for objecting to how much we drink. The majority of over-65s are more likely to drink at home, where there's no danger of being drunk at the wheel, and are not responsible for the care of children. If we want to risk knocking a few years off our already long lives, I can't see it's anyone's business but our own.

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  • Lily44, I understand what you're saying but I think the long term effects and drain to the NHS will become apparent when drinking in their home then becomes the business of everyone else. I work in a care home for exactly these types of patients and the effects are devastating.

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  • Anonymous, I suspect we're talking about two slightly different things. I too have volunteered in care homes and seen the terrible effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However the fact remains that these patients only account for a small percentage of dementia sufferers, many of whom may have drunk very little in their lives.

    I think the misunderstanding comes from the imposition of the existing arbitrary limits for "safe drinking". It has now been admitted by some of those involved in setting these limits that they were "plucked from the air" because no one had any idea what safe levels were. Even the WHO has posited 35 units per week for women and a whopping 53 for men (which seems decidedly OTT to me!)

    Clearly someone who drinks 60 units per week has a vastly higher risk than a 10-unit drinker. The difficulty comes in establishing where the cut-off point comes. The 21/14 limits are clearly unrealistic - a fact that the medical establishment is now starting to recognise. A lot of the scare-mongering (and yes, I use the word advisedly) comes from lumping together those who slightly exceed the limits set in 1987 with those who are drinking themselves into unconsciousness every day.

    There's an unfortunate tendency among those setting public health targets to deliberately exaggerate in a bid to scare people into complying. But it can have the opposite effect. The five-a-day campaign is a good example. I don't doubt for a moment that this is a worthy target - I personally eat five portions of vegetables and one or two of fruit every day - but three or even two a day would have been more sensible. The problem arises when five target is presented to people who struggle to eat even one portion per day (a worryingly large percentage of the population). Rather than treating this advice as a wake-up call, they don't even attempt to meet a target which is hopelessly out of reach.

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  • Pussy

    Anon 9:50. Nonsense! Indoctrinated? I think not!

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  • I'm willing to take part in any research as long as someone else is paying for the tipple of my choice.

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  • Nakedphil, maybe you and I could apply for a grant?

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