Action needed if alcohol related older adult hospital stays to be reduced

By Drink Wise Age Well | Posted 10.05.2016

Alcohol will remain in our society and for many people is an enjoyable and socially pleasurable experience. Our recent study found that, for many lower risk drinkers, alcohol is seen as a key part of socialisation. We also know isolation and loneliness can be as detrimental in later years as other physical health conditions.

While the recent publication of Public Health England’s Local Alcohol Profile for England (May 2016) gives rise to some positive news in that rate of alcohol related hospital admissions are falling for the under 40s, we are continuing to see almost year on year increases in hospital admissions for the overs 65’s and the highest rate of admission fall within the middle ages (aged 40-64years).

During the period 2002-2010, alcohol-related hospital admissions amongst those aged 65+ increased by 136% for men and 132% for women (Wadd, S. 2014), and it looks like this pattern continues for most years. While it appears that alcohol-related harms are disproportionately higher in our older population than any other age group, we have to ensure we are not creating a climate whereby older people are seen yet again as a burden on our health services. What is important is to explore the underlying reasons this is happening and how we respond.

Certainly from a policy aspect we can argue that the increased alcohol harms we are seeing in this age group are directly related to the accessibility, availability and affordability of alcohol.  In the past 20 years, alcohol has become more affordable than ever before and we have had more disposable income. Our drinking culture has changed and moved out of clubs and pubs into our homes, where it is more difficult to monitor consumption and we can buy in bulk.

Young, drunk people in our city centres are the visible face of our unhealthy drinking culture. However, it is behind closed doors in our homes, that often the most harmful drinking is taking place

Up until recently a lot of health promotion and prevention programmes have targeted younger people, and binge drinking. Young, drunk people in our city centres are the visible face of our unhealthy drinking culture. However, it is behind closed doors in our homes, that often the most harmful drinking is taking place and a recent study from Sheffield University reveals that heavy drinking at home by middle aged people is as prolific and harmful as young people pre-loading before a night out.

Where young people may experience acute health consequences of alcohol use, injuries and intoxication, those in middle age and later life are more prone to chronic illnesses brought about by the accumulative effects of harmful drinking.

Those in middle age and later life are more prone to chronic illnesses brought about by the accumulative effects of harmful drinking.

And these health consequences can be many – alcohol is linked to over 60 diseases. In our recent Drink Wise, Age Well study we identified 20% of the survey respondents were increasing risk drinkers and, ultimately, could be those that contribute to the hospital admission figures of the future.

In the current absence of policy such as Minimum Unit Pricing that will affect whole population change, we need to start targeting our health messages to engage middle and later-aged populations. Knowledge about alcohol related harms remains low in the older population. Our Drink Wise, Age Well study found that 75% were unable to identify alcohol units and lower risk guidelines.

Four-fifths of over 50s who were drinking at levels that exposed them to increased harm had never been asked by family, friends or professionals about their alcohol use.

We believe that many people over 50 are conscious about their health, and try to incorporate behaviours into their lives that maintain their fitness and well- being. By receiving credible and reliable information around alcohol people may be in a position to make more informed choices at an earlier stage.

Working in partnership with public health agencies we can deliver campaigns that provide age-nuanced information and deliver screenings and brief intervention in settings where we will engage people in middle-age and older.

In our communities we have to ensure we reduce the stigma around alcohol use so that if someone is experiencing problems they will come and seek help.

In our communities we have to ensure we reduce the stigma around alcohol use so that if someone is experiencing problems they will come and seek help. That means as family members, friends, service providers, health practitioners we have to make sure we recognise and respond when someone may be at risk. We can do this by equipping people with the skills and knowledge to ‘ask the question’.

When we do provide support it needs to take into account mobility and socio-economic factors, as well as fears people may have about approaching others for help. Home visits where appropriate should be offered, along with other non-traditional means of getting help, embracing digital technology for solutions, such as Skype or email.

Getting older should be something that is enjoyed, and where quality of life is maintained. Ending up in hospital because of the harmful impacts of alcohol is not something that would be welcomed by any of us.