Many white English and Irish pensioners 'drinking to excess'

Behind the Headlines

Monday August 24 2015

It is recommended that you abstain from drinking a few days every week

Just a few drinks every day can soon add up to a harmful level

"One in five people over 65 who drink is consuming an "unsafe" level of alcohol, say researchers," BBC News reports. Their research also found that "unsafe drinking was far more common among the white British and Irish population".

The study involved nearly 28,000 older adults (aged 65 and over) living in the Lambeth area of London. It found that people were more likely to drink alcohol above safe limits if they were male, aged closer to 65, of Irish ethnicity and higher socioeconomic status.

The researchers used anonymised data from almost all GP practices in this inner-city area. They found that a third of older adults drink alcohol and that 7% drink above safe limits. The research was reliant on GP records, so may in fact be an underestimate, as people are often reluctant to disclose the actual amount of alcohol they consume, due to concerns about stigma. The figures may not be representative of what would be found in other parts of the UK.

The recommended safe limits of alcohol consumption for men are up to 21 units per week, and for women it’s 14 units per week. "Social drinking" can often sneak up on you and lead to conditions such as alcoholic liver diseaseobesity and depression.

If you are concerned about your alcohol consumption, read more practical advice on how to cut down.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry and King’s College London. No external funding was reported.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ Open and the study is free to access online.

In general, the media reported the story accurately, though headlines such as, "one-fifth of over-65s drinking at unsafe levels" from The Guardian are misleading. The study found that one-fifth (about 20%) of over-65s who drank any alcohol at all were drinking at unsafe levels. As only a third of over 65-year-olds drank alcohol in this study, this equates to a lower figure of 7%, which is around 1 in 14.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study looking at the level of alcohol consumption in older adults according to age, sex, ethnicity, health and socioeconomic deprivation.

It aimed to see which factors are most associated with high alcohol intake in this population, to inform which groups of people to target with intervention programmes. There has previously been little research of this type in this age group.

As this was a cross-sectional study, it can only look at information from one time point, so it cannot show that the increased alcohol intake caused any of the health problems listed. However, it can show that people drinking alcohol excessively are more likely to experience these conditions.

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers looked at anonymised data from all adults aged 65 and over from 49 of 50 GPs in the Lambeth inner-city area of London participating in the Lambeth DataNet project – an ongoing project that makes use of anonymised GP data to track and study health trends. 

This current study consisted of 27,991 people in 2013, the study looked at data on their:

  • age
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • socioeconomic deprivation
  • long-term medical conditions
  • alcohol consumption

Socioeconomic deprivation in the area where each person lived was measured using the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2010  a government-funded project that measures levels of deprivation and the consequences. For a given area, this looks at:

  • income deprivation
  • employment deprivation
  • health deprivation and disability
  • education skills and training deprivation
  • barriers to housing and services
  • living environment deprivation
  • crime

The data was then analysed to look for associations between these factors and people drinking over the safe limits (21 units a week for men and 14 units a week for women).

 

What were the basic results?

A third of older adults drank alcohol, (9,248 people) and 7% drank above safe limits, (1,980 people). The factors most likely to predict drinking alcohol and drinking above safe limits were:

  • younger age
  • male gender
  • Irish ethnicity

People were less likely to drink alcohol if they were of Asian, black Caribbean or black African ethnicity.

Socioeconomic deprivation and medical conditions such as high blood pressure did not significantly predict whether someone was drinking above safe limits. However, for those who were drinking above safe limits, less socioeconomic deprivation predicted higher levels of alcohol consumption.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that there were "higher levels of alcohol misuse in the 'baby boomer' cohort than in younger age groups". They say that their findings "suggest that close attention needs to be paid to identifying alcohol misuse in 'young older' men, paying close attention to the needs of those born outside the UK and those living in areas of lower deprivation".

 

Conclusion

This cross-sectional study found that in the over-65s in an inner city area in London (Lambeth), people were more likely to drink alcohol if they are male, in the younger age bracket and of Irish ethnicity. These factors and less socioeconomic deprivation were also predictors of unsafe drinking levels in those who drank.

The findings of this study are important, as they could help to identify people at risk of alcohol-related conditions and provide them with support to reduce their consumption.

However, the study has some limitations. These include a reliance on data recorded by GP services – in particular, self-reporting of alcohol intake, which could be subject to inaccurate recall or reluctance to give true estimates due to stigma. The true figures of alcohol consumption are likely to be higher.

This study was conducted on an inner-city area in London, so results may differ for people living in other geographical areas. For example, there was a higher percentage of people with Irish ethnicity in this area  5% compared to 1.7% of the general UK population.

If you are drinking above the safe levels recommended for men and women, you can find advice on how to cut down.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow NHS Choices on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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An expert explains alcohol's effects on the body and the risks of high alcohol consumption for older people.

Media last reviewed: 17/06/2015

Next review due: 17/06/2017

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