Baby boomers + alcohol: Just having a good time or a growing health issue?


When we think about harmful drinking habits Millennials and Gen-Z are the age groups that come to mind with their apparent binge drinking, shot-taking and all-night-raving. However when we look at the facts, it's clear that we also need to think about the Baby Boomer generation.

Born in an era of social and economic change, Baby Boomers and their successors Generation X are continuing their drinking habits into their older years and it's putting them at increasing risk. The frequency of their alcohol consumption paired with their changing physiology should be a cause for concern.

The facts

According to the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), young people today are more likely to abstain from alcohol, illicit drugs and tobacco than any time since 2001. Alcohol consumption is actually decreasing among young people.

Meanwhile, alcohol consumption and associated health risks are increasing in people aged 50 years and over and there is a rapidly expanding aging population. The NDSHS survey found that single occasion risk drinking has been declining in NSW in other age groups except people aged 50-64 years where there has been an increasing trend since 2010.

Very high risk drinking (11 or more standard drinks on one occasion) at least monthly increased significantly for people aged 50-59 years in Australia between 2013 and 2016, while decreasing for younger age groups.

A lifetime risk for Baby Boomers

The NSW Population Health Survey 2016 also found that lifetime risk drinking is increasing among people aged 45-64 years and older people were more likely to drink every day than younger people.

Baby Boomers have increased risk of alcohol-related harm due to their changing physiology and reduced ability to metabolise alcohol. In older people excessive alcohol consumption is associated with falls, car accidents, suicides and mental health issues, chronic diseases and cancer. In addition, co-morbidities and concurrent use of medicines can mean any level of alcohol consumption becomes risky and problematic.

Alcohol is also a significant contributor to premature death and hospitalisation among older Australians – among 65–74-year-olds, almost 600 die every year from injury and disease caused by drinking above the NHMRC 2001 guideline levels, and a further 6,500 are hospitalised (Chikritzhs & Pascal 2005). In 2014-15, alcohol related hospital admissions and deaths were highest in older age groups (NSW APEDDR 2017).

Underestimating the impact of drinking habits

Until recently, alcohol use by older people has been largely unrecognised and older generations are often unaware of the risks of their alcohol use. Families may also be unaware, and alcohol related health issues can be dismissed as part of the aging process.

The Federation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found that in the 50+ age group 82 per cent were comfortable with how much they drank and only 53 per cent were aware of the national alcohol guidelines. Further to this, FARE found that while the majority of Australians associate illness such as cirrhosis of the liver (74 per cent) and liver cancer (69 per cent) with alcohol consumption, few were aware of the link between alcohol and heart disease, stroke, mouth and throat cancer, and breast cancer.

The guidelines

Although the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) alcohol guidelines state drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, it also states that this applies to healthy men and women. According to the guidelines:

"Age is an important determinant of health risks related to alcohol. Harm from alcohol-related disease is more evident among older people.

"Those taking medication, people with alcohol-related or other physical conditions, and people with mental health conditions may need to seek professional advice about drinking."

Preventing harm

The time to act is now - it is projected that the NSW population aged 50 years and older will grow by 46 per cent, to 3.8 million by 2036 (CEE 2017).

While not everyone who drinks alcohol will experience harm, the less alcohol you drink the lower your risk. There is no 'safe' alcohol limit but the less alcohol consumed the better.

To prevent harm caused by alcohol, quit drinking today. Across the globe there are millions of people who live alcohol free. If you're not ready to quit, cut down your alcohol intake or speak to someone that can help guide you towards a healthier lifestyle – like your GP or another health professional.

You can also contact the Get Healthy Service. Get Healthy is a free telephone-based coaching service that provides NSW residents over 18 with a free personal health coach to guide and support them on their journey to live a healthy life - helping you to drink less alcohol, get active and eat well.

If alcohol is a problem for you, seek help. Find out which support and treatment is best for you. Or call the free Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) support line for more information on 1800 250 015.

Want to know whether your drinking habits are putting you at risk? Find out with the Your Room Risk Assessment.

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