In 2016, according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, more than 30 per cent of people over 60 were drinking at risky levels. The same survey also revealed that people aged 70 and over often exceed 2 standard drinks per day on at least 5 days per week (AIHW, 2016). For older drinkers, the effects of alcohol can be more pronounced, and it can take longer to ‘bounce back’.
For people in this age category, guidelines set by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare stipulate that consuming fewer than four standard drinks in one session can help reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion and that drinking fewer than two standard drinks on any day can help to reduce your risk of harm from alcohol-related diseases or injury over a lifetime, such as certain cancers. Now, some of you may have read those guidelines and thought it would be incredibly easy to surpass those limits over a weekend of social gatherings and bbq’s – I know I certainly did the first time I saw those guidelines, and so would many other Australians. In 2017, FARE conducted a survey of 1,820 Australians, revealing that awareness of these guidelines was at just 58 per cent.
As we age, the effects of alcohol become more pronounced. People over the age of 50 have decreased levels of body water content and chemicals that break down alcohol in the body (gastric alcohol dehydrogenase). This means that alcohol will remain in your body for longer periods of time as it is not being broken down as quickly, leading to a prolonged and more rapid feeling of being tipsy. Women, on average, are composed of less water than men and therefore can feel the enhanced effects of alcohol. This can be a real problem, particularly for older Australians, as it places them at more risk of things like accidental falls and drink driving.
Working in health promotion, this figure does not surprise me; alcohol is incredibly well advertised across sports, movies and TV shows, frequently being promoted as the first thing to do after coming home from a day at work. Alcohol is easily accessible (you can pretty much get alcohol anywhere nowadays, even at some hairdressers), cheap (depending on your taste) and often the central focus of socialising with many of our friends looking forward to ‘cracking one open’. Like anything that we may be tempted to consume in excess, being mindful, educated and honest about our consumption can often help us make better decisions for our health – whether this means cutting back, giving up completely or seeking professional help from a trusted health care professional. Low-risk drinking is about balancing your enjoyment of alcohol with the potential risks and harms that may arise from it – especially if you go beyond low-risk drinking levels.
Alcohol does not mix well with certain medications or health conditions. Drinking at risky levels may, in fact, worsen certain health conditions such as having high blood pressure, diabetes, liver disease, infections, mental health conditions and sleep disorders. It is important for older Australians to understand that risky drinking when on medications can have serious health consequences. Always confirm with your GP if any medications you are taking are affected by alcohol.
In the case of alcohol, not getting the support you may need can take its toll on your health and relationships. We live in a paradox society that constantly encourages and enables people to drink, but if you develop an issue with drinking, all of a sudden, you can be condemned for it – rather than being supported to get help and, most importantly, not being judged for getting it. If you know someone whose drinking you are concerned about, make sure you visit our website www.thetalkweneeded.com to find out how you can support someone you care about.