SENIORS are now one of the fastest growing populations of hazardous drinkers, say health experts.
Yet they present unique challenges for doctors as they have higher physiological sensitivity to alcohol, more co-morbid health conditions and use medications that alcohol can interfere with.
There is also a higher risk of alcohol-linked mental health issues and a greater likelihood of alcohol-related injuries and death.
However, health systems are failing to identify the older drinker and address their needs until their condition is critical, a recent conference of the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs was told.
New ambulance attendance data from Victoria has found the greatest increase of all ambulance attendances involving alcohol intoxication was in those aged over 50, while an Australian national community survey found that older adults in fact drink more frequently than younger age groups, albeit at lesser levels.
Australian research also shows alcohol use disorder is the leading cause of dementia in people under 65 accounting for nearly 20 per cent of cases.
Conference delegates were told an international review had found growing evidence that hazardous drinking is a major public health concern in older populations.
Baby boomers worldwide are drinking more than previous generations of older adults and many are drinking at harmful levels.
In New Zealand, up to 40 per cent of older adults are hazardous drinkers, and the over-50’s drink more frequently and drink more on each occasion than older adults in nine other countries including England, Russia, the United States, Mexico and China.
“Baby boomers worldwide are drinking more than previous generations of older adults and many are drinking at harmful levels,” said Dr Andy Towers of Massey’s School of Health Sciences.
“We need to take action now to cut the rate of hazardous drinking in this group, maintain their health and reduce reliance on care,” he said.
Dr Adrienne Withall, from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales said, “Alcohol is a risk to brain health that we simply cannot ignore any longer.
“There is increasing evidence that alcohol is an important, modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment and should be a target for dementia prevention campaigns.
“We need to get the message out there that older people should ideally limit their drinking to one standard drink a day with two alcohol free days per week.
“Unfortunately, we believe that there is no safe level of drinking for people with dementia,” said Dr Withall.
The conference was told many older adults and their GPs felt uncomfortable discussing alcohol use, many did not understand what a standard drink was nor what the low-risk guidelines were, and many laboured under the assumption - now seriously in question - that a bit of alcohol was good for you.