Active, affluent people over age 50 in the U.K. appear to be at greater risk for harmful drinking behaviors than their less successful peers, according to a new study published in the online journal BMJ Open.
Risky drinking behavior among successful older people has become a hidden health problem, warn the researchers, who call for clear guidelines on alcohol consumption for this group.
“Our findings suggest that harmful drinking in later life is more prevalent among people who exhibit a lifestyle associated with affluence and with a ‘successful’ aging process,” said researchers from AGE UK. “Harmful drinking may then be a hidden health and social problem in otherwise successful older people.”
The findings are based on more than 9000 responses to the two most recent waves of the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing (ELSA), a long-term study of a representative sample of people aged 50 and above living independently.
Participants were asked about a range of potentially influential factors: 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 (civic participation, networks of friends, cultural activities).
The findings showed that the risk of harmful drinking peaked for men in their early 60s and then gradually tailed off, whereas for women harmful drinking fell in tandem with age.
These patterns suggest that older people may be carrying on levels of higher alcohol consumption developed in their younger years, in later life, say the researchers.
Certain factors were linked to a heightened or lowered risk of harmful drinking. Income was connected 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 found to be connected to loneliness or depression, but it was more common among men living on their own, including those who were separated/divorced, and among white men.
Caring responsibilities lessened the drinking risk among women, but religious beliefs did not for either sex. Employment status did not seem to be a significant factor, with the exception of retired women, who were at higher risk.
The researchers call for clear guidelines on alcohol consumption for this higher-risk group.
“Consequently, and based on our results, we recommend the explicit incorporation of alcohol drinking levels and patterns into the successful aging paradigm,” said the researchers.