older man drinking low res

If you’re over 50 – the following may apply to you

We are an ageing population, the baby boomers are starting to retire, they are energetic, demanding and have disposable incomes to burn; things you have already heard before.  Did you know however that substance use disorders in the over 50s age group are predicted to double by 2020?

A report in February this year from the UK charity DrugScope, identified that while alcohol use might decline with age, the number of older people with substance use problems is getting bigger. While the media and politicians put the spotlight on young people and binge drinking, the older age group tends to be forgotten.  There are virtually no education campaigns, and public awareness is minimal.

However, the risk factors are all there:

  • difficulties in adjusting to retirement – boredom etc,
  • bereavement – especially the loss of a spouse,
  • depression,
  • early stages of dementia.

The Australian guidelines for low-risk alcohol consumption highlight that older people are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol due to a decreased ability to metabolise it effectively.  Mixed with medications there is the potential for adverse reactions, and the likelihood of injuries due to misadventure is far greater. Alcohol is a significant contributor to premature death and hospitalisations among older Australians. Whilst the guidelines of no more than 2 standard drinks per day may still apply, should we be encouraging our older generation to have more restraint?

Sometimes it’s difficult to identify if your family member has an issue with alcohol; we are generally ignorant of their day-to-day activities. It is quite easy for someone’s current consumption to evolve into more risky drinking, and if there is cognitive impairment then they may forget how much they have consumed.

There are a range of prevention activities that may be effective with the older population. Included in these are health promotion activities such as public education, appropriate warning labels and population-specific education activities; as well as preventive health services, including early identification and early and effective interventions [i].

One program which is the only of its kind in Australia is Older Wiser Lifestyles (OWL) based at Peninsula Health in Melbourne’s southern suburbs. Working with high risk adults, the program includes:

  • screening older people presenting to a range of services within Peninsula Health’s catchment area,
  • educating health practitioners in asking about alcohol and other drug use,
  • providing health practitioners with the questions to ask patients.

OWL have been successful in reducing the amount of alcohol consumed by the adults who have come through the program; on average, after three months, they halved the amount of alcohol that they had previously been consuming.

So, the message is: don’t be complacent. As we age we need to modify our drinking even more. Let’s face it, the factors that can contribute to young people misusing alcohol can also affect anyone of us at any age.

We may be as young as we feel, but we shouldn’t let alcohol cloud our judgement.


[i] Ashley MJ, Rankin JG 1988 “A public health approach to the prevention of alcohol related health problems”, Annual Review of Public Health, 9, pp. 233–71.