It’s ‘critically important’ to identify hazardous drinking in older people, researchers say
Adults over 50 in Australia and New Zealand are increasingly drinking at hazardous levels requiring hospitalisation, research presented at an international alcohol conference on Tuesday has found.
Researchers from Massey University, the University of Auckland and the University of New South Wales concluded it was now critical for aged-care workers and doctors to identify alcohol misuse in older people, as well as the possible long-term impacts on cognition.
“With the number of older people requiring treatment for alcohol-use disorders predicted to increase substantially in coming years, it’s critically important that we improve our response now,” said Professor Michael Farrell, the director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney.
Researchers reviewed international ambulance and health survey data and found baby boomers worldwide were drinking more than previous generations of older adults.
In New Zealand, up to 40% of older adults are hazardous drinkers, and those over 50 drink more frequently and more on each occasion than older adults in nine other countries including England, Russia, the United States, Mexico and China.
In Victoria, over-50s are responsible for the greatest increase in alcohol-related ambulance call-outs, the researchers found, and alcohol is increasingly a cause of young-onset dementia, a study of aged-care psychiatry patients at the Prince of Wales hospital in Sydney showed. The findings from these surveys were presented at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol & other Drugs conference in New Zealand this week.
Older drinkers have higher physiological sensitivity to alcohol, more co-morbid health conditions and are more likely to use medications that alcohol can interfere with. Those over 50 should limit their drinking to one standard drink a day with two alcohol-free days per week, the researchers said, while there is no safe level of drinking for people with dementia.
A research fellow with the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, Julia Stafford, said while younger drinkers were more likely to drink at risky levels during a single drinking session resulting in falls, assaults, accidents and black-outs, older adults who might drink less per session but who have been drinking over a longer of period of time were at risk of stroke, heart disease and many cancers.
“There is no national awareness campaign that communicates those long-term risks, and public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancers is fairly low,” Stafford said.
She said weak alcohol advertising legislation was exacerbating the issue. Research co-authored by Stafford and published in the Drug and Alcohol Review on Friday found alcohol advertising rules funded by the alcohol industry and which restrict where alcohol ads can be placed had failed to reduce young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing.
“The industry produced their own placement rules with no external consultation and, really, our research found those rules are pretty useless and provide no additional safeguards to protect people from advertising,” Stafford said.
Research presented at the conference from a study of more than 700 New Zealanders aged 61 to 81 showed 36% were consistent hazardous drinkers since early adulthood.
Chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Michael Thorn, said up until the 1990s people started to reduce their drinking once they entered their fifties.
“But people are now drinking in a much more permissive environment with exposure to alcohol advertising from an earlier age and they are continuing to drink at higher levels later into life,” he said. “And they don’t necessarily have the knowledge of the long-term health risks. I’m not aware of any national public awareness campaigns really targeting older drinkers.”