Changing Perceptions: How Harmful Is Drinking in Later Life?

Given the current growth of ageing populations, alcohol consumption among the elderly has received increased attention.

What is deemed to be a ‘safe’ level of consumption has also been thrown into question, in the light of new evidence of a link between alcohol and illness in later life.

Psychological changes associated with ageing mean that older adults may have a reduced tolerance to alcohol. They may also suffer from illnesses which are potentially worsened by consumption and are more likely to take prescription medicines that can interact with alcohol.

In this way, although evidence points to a general downward trend in consumption as people age, older adults are at an increased risk of adverse effects of even modest levels of alcohol intake.

Moreover, other factors such as increased loneliness in older age could affect consumption patterns.

A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports looks at the changes in alcohol consumption over a 3-year period among the over-60s in Spain, in order to better understand these issues and guide interventions to prevent excessive alcohol intake in later life. 

Among the study’s key findings were: 

  • Social isolation was generally linked to risky drinking behaviours among both men and women. However, some women who increased their time spent reading over the 3-years reduced their alcohol intake over the same period. The same result was found for some men who increased their time spent watching TV. This may suggest that while social networks can help to rein in negative behaviours, lower social connectivity also means a reduction in social events at which drinking can occur. Indeed, male and female high-risk drinkers were more likely to reduce their alcohol intake after changing their meal habits from eating with others to eating alone.
  • A reduction in BMI was more likely among those quitting alcohol during the 3-year period
  • Smoking increased the likelihood of concurrent risky drinking behaviours among men
  • A reduction in overall alcohol intake over the 3-year period was noted. However, almost a quarter of older adults at the end of the trail were still drinking substantial amounts. This could point to a lack of awareness – indeed scepticism - about the potential dangers of alcohol consumption among elderly populations. The researchers found this worrying, given the high prevalence of medical prescriptions about this age group.

These findings inform the researchers’ recommendations for prevention strategy in this area. They suggest that future interventions should:

  • Address levels of scepticism about this age group
  • Consider how gender affects alcohol consumption in later life
  • Consider elderly populations as a highly diverse group and therefore customise prevention messages in line with specific concerns.
  • Health campaigns targeting excessive drinking among older populations should aim to minimise the harmful effects of such behaviour while also maintaining the benefits of socialisation.
Soler-Vila, Hosanna, Rosario Ortolá, Esther García-Esquinas, Luz Mª León-Muñoz, and Fernando Rodríguez-Artalejo. "Changes in Alcohol Consumption and Associated Variables among Older Adults in Spain: A population-based cohort study." Scientific reports 9, no. 1 (2019): 10401.
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