People over 65 should drink less, a report says

By Dominic Hughes
Health correspondent, BBC News

image captionExperts are warning that older people should cut down on their drinking

Recommended safe limits for drinking alcohol by older people should be drastically cut, according to a report.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says people over 65 should drink a maximum of only 1.5 units of alcohol a day.

That is the equivalent of just over about half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine.

The report says older drinkers are less able to process alcohol and the drink might also interact with medication they may be taking for other ailments.

It warns current advice - 14 units of alcohol for women and 21 for men each week - is based on work with young adults.

A group of experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists says there is a growing problem with substance abuse among older people, who they describe as society's "invisible addicts".

The report says a third those who experience problems with alcohol abuse do so later on in life, often as a result of big changes like retirement, bereavement or feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression.

But the extent of the drinking is hidden because unlike younger drinkers, more older people drink in their own homes, the report suggests.

The problem is exacerbated by the widespread use - and misuse - of prescribed and over-the-counter medicines among elderly people which can interact badly with alcohol.

Compounding the problems are the changes our bodies undergo as we get older which mean we are less able to cope with the effects of alcohol.

The report is calling for the government to issue separate advice on safe drinking limits for older people, with an upper "safe limit" of 1.5 units of alcohol a day, or 11 units per week.

They also want GPs to screen every person over the age of 65 for substance misuse, along with health campaigns around drugs and alcohol specifically targeting older people.

Professor Ilana Crome, Professor of Addiction Psychiatry and chair of the group that wrote the report, says it is a hidden problem but one that is growing in scale.

"The traditional view is that alcohol misuse is uncommon in older people and that the misuse of drugs is very rare - this is simply not true.

"A lack of awareness means that GPs and other healthcare professionals often overlook or discount the signs when someone has a problem.

"We hope this report highlights the scale of the problem, and that the multiple medical and social needs of this group of people are not ignored any longer."

Coping mechanism

GPs are often those who stand the best chance of spotting when someone has a problem.

Dr Stefan Janikiewicz is a general practitioner from the Wirral and Cheshire region and was also one of the report's authors.

"There is increased pressure to glean information from patients and act on these findings. Smoking and alcohol are still the most common forms of substance misuse that affect all age groups.

"Increasingly, GPs are responding to these issues."

He warns that GPs have to work with specialist services and other health workers.


But there has been an angry reaction from many older people to the suggestion that they should cut down on their drinking.

The editor of Saga magazine, Emma Soames, described the recommendations as "unbelievable".

"I think people will be infuriated by this. It's described as a public health problem, it's actually a private health matter.

"And as people's horizons narrow, as they get older, eating and drinking are one of the few pleasures that remain with them for a very long time. And going to the pub is the last social activity for many, many people."

Don Shenker, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, said the problems of older drinkers are often ignored.

"While younger excessive drinkers often make the headlines, we should remember that older people often turn to alcohol in later life as a coping mechanism and this can remain stubbornly hidden from view.

media captionEmma Soames: "I think the levels are so ridiculously low that I don't think people will take them seriously"

"This report calls for much greater recognition that excessive drinking in older age is both widespread and preventable, particularly if public health professionals are supported and trained to spot the signs and take appropriate action."

In a statement Age UK said: "It is very worrying that growing numbers of people in later life are drinking higher levels of alcohol, which is likely to lead to a rise in alcohol-related health problems.

"Age UK fully supports moves to encourage GPs to do more to identify people who are drinking too much and the importance of raising awareness among older people about safe drinking levels."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said action was being taken to tackle problem drinking, such as plans to stop supermarkets selling alcohol at below-cost prices.

She added: "However, individuals have responsibilities too and everyone should drink responsibly within the recommended alcohol limits.

"All advice is kept under review. We welcome any addition to the evidence base in this area and will consider this report carefully."

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