The NHS revealed yesterday that alcohol-related hospital admissions have soared for people aged over 65, an increase of 163% in just 10 years. Another organisation monitoring substance misuse has found that the levels of alcohol drunk by this age group has been steadily increasing, and will only continue to as our population ages.
Whilst moderate drinking can have a number of positive benefits, such as reducing stress or improving ‘sociability’, heavy drinking can induce chronic conditions such as liver or cardiovascular disease, memory problems and depression. If widespread, it also affects our wider community as alcohol-influenced illness in older age increases health and social care use.
There are, of course, a number of reasons for these changing statistics but a recurring issue raised by both the news stories and research was how loneliness could make older people increasingly susceptible to alcohol problems.
For example, Alcohol Research UK includes loneliness as a one of their ‘vulnerability’ factors – changes that can occur as we grow older that can trigger heavy drinking. Other vulnerabilities include becoming less mobile, experiencing bereavement or chronic pain and having decreased social support, all of which we have previously identified as risk factors for loneliness.
At the Campaign to End Loneliness we often talk about the negative health implications of loneliness – it is a comparable risk to mortality as lifelong smoking – but this information on alcohol abuse demonstrates just how loneliness can physically hurt us by prompting harmful behaviour.
In December we wrote to the Department of Health to argue that preventing loneliness should be part of their long-term strategy for care of older people. We believe that by avoiding or alleviating loneliness they will reduce the number of people requiring acute health or social care, as well as raising the quality of care or support in later life.
And these latest statistics simply reinforces this point – if we can make sure that someone receives support they might need to end their loneliness (be that transport, money or a volunteer) or if we all plan for a ‘social future’ after retirement, is it not possible that we can reduce levels of alcohol addiction and its related health complications in older age?
As recent report on older drinkers from the University of Bedfordshire said, “where social isolation is an issue, the client may require assistance identifying opportunities for social activities and connections to the community”.
So my question for you now is, why and where do you drink?
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For further information on alcohol misuse in older age see:
Wadd, S., Lapworth, K., Sullivan, M., Forrester, D. and Galvani, S. (2011) Working with Older Drinkers (Tilda Goldberg Centre and University of Bedfordshire: http://alcoholresearchuk.org/downloads/finalReports/FinalReport_0085)