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Alcohol problems more likely in wealthy middle aged

Better off people more prone to harmful drinking

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 24 July 2015

Middle aged people who are better off financially and have a comfortable, social life are more at risk of developing a dangerous drinking habit than poorer people, concludes a study* published today in the online journal BMJ Open.

A study carried out by charity Age UK’s research department found that what is called “successful ageing” was linked to harmful drinking among over 50 year-olds in England.

Alcohol consumption is rising among older people in England, so the researchers set out to examine the social and economic factors associated with harmful drinking, and changing patterns of consumption over time.

They used national guidance to define increasing risk of harmful drinking as 22-50 weekly units for men and 15 to 35 weekly units for women; and higher risk, as more than 50 and more than 35 weekly units, respectively, for men and women.

For the study, they analysed 9,251 responses to the two most recent waves (2008-9 and 2010-11) of the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing (ELSA) – a long-term study of a representative sample of those aged 50 and above living independently at home in England.

Survey participants were asked about a range of potentially influential factors such as income; educational attainment; self reported health; whether they smoked; diet; physical activity levels; whether they felt lonely or depressed; ethnic background; marital status; caring responsibilities; religious beliefs; employment status; and social engagement.

Analysis of the responses showed that the risk of harmful drinking peaked for men in their early 60s and then gradually tailed off, whereas for women risky drinking fell in tandem with age.

The patterns suggested that the current group of over 50s could be carrying on levels of higher consumption developed in their younger years, in later life, said the researchers.

Certain factors were linked to a higher or lower risk of harmful drinking.

Income, for example, was associated with a higher risk, but only among women, while smoking, higher educational attainment, and good health were all linked to heightened risk in both sexes.

Higher risk of harmful drinking was not linked to feelings of loneliness or depression, but was more likely among men living on their own, including those who were separated/divorced.

When the researchers looked at changes in alcohol consumption between the two waves of the survey, they found that among women, loneliness, younger age, and higher income were all associated with the likelihood of becoming a higher risk drinker by 2010-11. A healthy diet seemed to lessen the risk.

Among men, these patterns were similar, except that caring responsibilities, loneliness, older age and lower income increased the likelihood of no longer drinking at risky levels by wave 2 of the survey.

The researchers said: “We can sketch – at the risk of much simplification – the problem of harmful drinking among people aged 50 or over in England as a middle class phenomenon: people in better health, higher income, with higher educational attainment and socially more active are more likely to drink at harmful levels.

“Harmful drinking may then be a hidden health and social problem in otherwise successful older people. Consequently, and based on our results, we recommend the explicit incorporation of alcohol drinking levels and patterns into the successful ageing paradigm.”

* Professor José Iparraguirre, et al. Socioeconomic determinants of risk of harmful alcohol drinking among people aged 50 or over in England. BMJ Open 2015;5:e007684 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-007684

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