Could more than three million older people in England be at risk of alcohol-related harm?

Research published today in Age and Ageing, the scientific journal of the British Geriatrics Society, shows that the number of older drinkers classified as hazardous alcohol consumers would be in excess of three million


if age specific drinking recommendations proposed in a Royal College of Psychiatrists report were to be implemented.

Our Invisible Addicts, a report published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in June 2011, suggested lowering the daily recommended alcohol limit for older people to an upper limit of an average of 1.5 units a day (averaged over a week) for people aged 65 or over.  It also suggested reclassifying binge drinking for older consumers as the consumption in a single session of more than 4.5 units for men and more than 3 units for women.

Researchers from UCL (University College London) have investigated the implications of changing the daily recommended limits in terms of identifying how many older people would be classified as at risk of alcohol related harm.  The researchers looked at the prevalence of alcohol consumption in excess of the existing and the suggested consumption limits, examining data from over 15,000 people about their drinking habits.

The number of individuals aged 65 or over and drinking in excess of recommended limits would have increased 2.5 fold to over three million in 2008 under the age-specific recommendations.  The resulting figure of 3,142,000 at-risk older drinkers is 1,865,000 more than classified at-risk under existing guidelines and is also in excess of the number of people in the 16-24 age group classified as at risk.  Suggested revisions to existing binge drinking classifications would have defined almost 1,200,000 people aged 65 or over as hazardous consumers of alcohol in 2008 – a 3.6 fold increase over existing definitions.

It’s not certain that the implementation of age-specific consumption thresholds would prove the most effective means of reducing alcohol intake in older populations – not least as the concept of alcohol units is unfamiliar to around one fifth of older adults.  However, it is important that research is carried out into the prevalence of harmful alcohol consumption amongst older people and this should include a focus on the suitability of new age-specific consumption thresholds.


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