A recent British study examined a number of social and economic factors to determine which were associated with the risk of harmful drinking habits in adults over 50. Researchers found a number of differences in risk factors between men and women—but perhaps most interestingly, a number of characteristics associated with the paradigm of “successful aging” were also associated with a greater risk of drinking at harmful levels.
This study looked at data from the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing, which is a representative sample of 8,727 adults from 50 to 89, with an average age of 67, all living in private households. The survey collects data on drinking behavior, along with a large number of other demographic variables potentially related to drinking behavior. The study’s researchers define harmful drinking according to definitions from the British National Institute for Health and Care Excellence: lower risk consists of drinking less than 21 servings of alcohol per week for men and less than 14 for women. Increasing risk is defined as between 22 and 50 servings per week for men and between 15 and 35 for women. Higher risk drinking is above 50 servings for men and over 35 for women. However, researchers note that these definitions do not take into account physiological changes in older adults that may make them more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.
Overall, the results of this study indicate that probability of being a higher risk drinker decreases with age for both men and women. However, in the case of men, before decreasing later in life, the likelihood of higher risk drinking peaks in their early 60s. Not surprisingly, both sexes also showed an association of smoking with higher risk drinking. Somewhat surprisingly, higher religiosity did not impact the likelihood of being a higher risk drinker.
However, a number of demographic factors associated with what has become termed “successful aging” were also associated with a greater likelihood of high risk drinking. For example, participants who reported being in better health had a higher probability of drinking at harmful levels. Higher levels of education were also associated with a higher risk. For women (but not men), higher income is associated with a higher risk. For these older adults, reporting being depressed or lonely was not associated with a higher risk of harmful drinking.
A few additional associations were also found: For women, having caregiving responsibilities reduced the probability of being at higher risk. In terms of race and ethnicity, higher risk drinking is more likely among white men, but there was no association between drinking behavior and ethnicity for women. In terms of marital status, single, separated, or divorced men showed a greater risk of harmful drinking, but this pattern was not found for women.
By looking at waves of data collection two years apart, the researchers were also able to investigate factors in adults over 50 that contributed to a higher likelihood of becoming a higher risk drinker. For women who were not higher risk drinkers in the first wave, being lonely, being younger, and having a higher income were associated with a greater likelihood of becoming a higher risk drinker in the second wave. On the other hand, a healthy diet in the first wave was associated with a lower risk of becoming a higher risk drinker in the second wave. There were no variables found that were associated with higher risk women drinkers in the first wave ceasing their higher risk behavior by the second wave. For men who were not higher risk drinkers in the first wave, higher probability of becoming a higher risk drinker was associated with poor diet, being younger, and having a higher income. Men were also found to be more likely than women to cease being higher risk drinkers than women, and a few factors were found that were associated with a greater likelihood of ceasing higher risk drinking. These were having children living in the household, being lonely, being older, and having a lower income.
Interestingly, when the researchers looked at the association of drinking behavior and being widowed, retiring, taking on care responsibilities, and empty nest syndrome between the two waves studied, none of these events were associated with a change in drinking behavior.
Perhaps most notable in this study is the association of factors otherwise associated with “successful living,” with greater probability of higher risk drinking. The authors of this study conclude that “generally speaking, people 50 and over ageing ‘successfully’ in England are more at risk of drinking at harmful levels or of developing harmful drinking patterns than those who fit less well into the paradigm of ageing ‘successfully.’” This raises the possibility that harmful drinking may then be a hidden health and social problem in otherwise successful older people. As a result, greater attention may need to be given by the aging services industry to alcohol consumption for individuals who appear to meet criteria for successful aging. The authors also suggest that alcohol consumption should be added to the criteria used to define the classification of successful aging.