Those ‘baby boomers’ heading towards later life in western countries are on the crest of a wave – the problem is that this wave is a Silver Tsunami of unhealthy drinking patterns.
The lack of any significant changes in older people’s drinking over the past 10 years, when compared to their younger counterparts, has already been mentioned in a previous blog. Perhaps no surprise then that in 2010, the 45-64 age group in England had the highest proportion of people drinking over recommended limits (1 in 5 women and nearly 1 in 3 men).
Being at the tail end of the baby boomer generation myself, social attitudes towards alcohol in the 1970s were very different to today’s age of enlightenment. Unhealthy drinking practices were rife, including alcohol consumption at business and office lunches, drink driving, as well as a ‘Scandinavian’ pattern of binge drinking which equated getting drunk with ‘having a good time’. But that wasn’t all. Alcohol advertising on television was commonplace, whether this be beer, cider or fortified/aromatised wines, which were associated with glamor, popularity and attracting the opposite sex. Sadly, these influences have had a profound effect on our current forty somethings and above, many of whose unhealthy behaviours are seeping into older age groups, with little intention of reducing their alcohol consumption in the same way as those occupying the same generation in the 2010s and before.
Now here’s the scary part. When we look at risky/unhealthy drinking across a range of countries, the trends are consistent.
In Wales, between 2008/09 and 2011/12, the percentage of women aged 55-64 drinking at hazardous levels has increased from 14% to 18 and in men aged 65-74, from 18% to 21%. This compares to ‘significant decreases’ in all age groups under 45.
In Scotland, between 2003 and 2011, the only age group not to decline in the proportion exceeding recommended weekly drinking guidelines was the group aged 65 and over.
In Canada, the 45–64 group has shown significant increases in risky alcohol consumption between 2003 and 2009–10.
In New Zealand, hazardous drinking rates have steadily increased for those aged 45–54 years, from 12% in 2006/07 to 16% in 2013/14. This is in stark contrast to reductions in younger age groups.
In Australia, a greater proportion of younger people are abstaining from alcohol. There have been no significant differences in the proportion of people aged 40 or older drinking alcohol at risky levels between 2001 and 2013.
Should we be concerned? Well, I think a veritable ‘yes’ is the somewhat rhetorical answer. The number of older people with alcohol misuse I am now seeing in my own clinical practice was about 3 per year in 1998. It is now closer to up to 3 per month. Now that is worrying.
The good news is that national policy makers, local commissioners and researchers with a special interest in older people’s drinking and dual diagnosis are beginning to wake up to the idea that failing to provide high quality care in the detection, treatment and referral of older people who are putting their own health at risk through unhealthy drinking patterns, is no longer an option.
At the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are going a step further by putting together an Information Guide for practitioners who come in contact with older people who have substance misuse (including alcohol-related problems).
This remains a challenging time, particularly with services that are already stretched, but there is still much scope for getting older people to look more seriously at their own drinking. Unless this happens, there is a real danger that we will simply add years to life, rather than life to years.