Research in the North East has found many older people are drinking alcohol in volumes deemed hazardous to health.
Academics are today calling for changes to the recommended safe levels of drinking for those aged over 65 and also special alcohol advice to be made available for older people.
Experts from Newcastle and Sunderland Universities have worked together to look at the reasons why many pensioners continue to drink harmful amounts.
A joint paper, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, concluded many older people may not recognise they are heavy drinkers if they do not see themselves as dependent on alcohol.
In the study, organised through Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, experts carried out interviews and conducted focus groups with 53 men and women aged between 65 and 90.
The aim was to find out why many older people continue to drink to unhealthy levels, and what their attitudes are to that drinking.
Dr Graeme Wilson, at the Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, who led the study, said: “Many older people are drinking to a level that is having a long-term impact on their health, even if the damage they are doing is not always immediately apparent.”
Current recommended safe levels of drinking are 14 units a week for women and 21 units for men.
However, many of those interviewed were unconcerned about their high alcohol intake and questioned health practitioners who suggested they should drink less.
In England, 28% of men over 65 and 14% of women of the same age group drink alcohol more than five times a week.
This is a particular problem in the North East, where the rate of hospital admissions for alcohol-related illnesses among those aged 50 to 79 is above the national average.
One of the women interviewed for the study said she drank a bottle of wine every day – about 63 units a week – but said she did not have a problem with alcohol because it did not have a big effect on her. Dr Katie Haighton, at the Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, said “Alcohol interventions are not working for older people for many reasons.
“A lot of those we interviewed said the messages around alcohol were very confusing. There is a need to develop new approaches to target the older population, for example longer in-home support, tailored information on the risks from alcohol in later life, or health workers with specific training on older people’s needs.
“We also think the Government really needs to start looking at lowering the recommended limit for alcohol consumption in those over 65.”
Heavy drinking in older age groups is strongly linked with depression and anxiety and longer term health problems. Metabolism is slower in later life, and older people are likely to take prescribed medicines that can interact with alcohol.
For these reasons heavy drinking can have a bigger impact on older people than on younger generations. Experts believe public health messages about harmful drinking have not been as effective in this age group. Older people saw alcohol as a way to relax and be sociable.
Chronic pain, loneliness and bereavement were identified as likely to lead to heavier drinking in later life.