Comment: Old age shouldn’t be all wine & no roses

As many as one in five over-60s drink enough to cause themselves harm. Picture: Neil Hanna
As many as one in five over-60s drink enough to cause themselves harm. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE most troublesome age group for problem drinking is not the young, writes Lori Anderson, but the over-60s

In the interests of gonzo journalism, I am writing this with a Manhattan by my side; fear not, no Hawaiian shirt clothes my back, I’m not that tipsy. Indeed, I hope I’ll never be that tipsy. But I am a staunch supporter of cocktail hour, that finite time with infinite possibilities. Hour? I confess that it sometimes over runs at my home but that’s to be expected of a Scot, isn’t it? Sadly, alcohol abuse is often expected of us Scots too.

I do so love the paraphernalia of alcohol, all the accoutrements that help to serve up joy in a glass. The polished gleam of the cocktail shaker, that little Dionysian Dalek that screams “I will intoxicate”, the sensual curve of a crystal coupe and the glinting array of coloured bottles that line a well-stocked bar. Please stop me before I come over all Lionel Hutz, the reprobate lawyer from The Simpsons, who during a trial heard the bottle of bourbon admitted in evidence begin to whisper “drink me”, so he did.

I’m fortunately blessed with a constitution that makes me a “Goldilocks drinker”. I don’t want to get too high, I certainly don’t want to get too low, I want my alchemical buzz to be “just right”. So this means two cocktails are a charm and a third may seem a tempting invitation, but it is one which inevitably leads to hangover hell, and so I’m happy to resist. For others, however, cocktail hour may be glamorous but its sequela can sometimes be life destroying.

Earlier this week, news reports pointed out that the most troublesome age group for problem drinkers was not the young, as might have been expected, but the old. Last year, more people over the age of 60 had to be admitted to Scottish hospitals with alcohol-related illnesses than those under 35. In 2012, 10,437 Scots over 60 were admitted to hospital, of which 8,816 were emergency cases. By comparison, the number of under-35s who were taken to hospital with alcohol-related illnesses totalled 8,061. Research also showed that more than half of all alcohol-related hospital admissions involved people aged over 50 while more than one in three were over 60.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, about 1.4 million people aged 65 and over now exceed the recommended drinking limits, with more over-65s drinking every day than any other age group. Dr Sarah Wadd, programme director for substance misuse and ageing research at the Institute of Applied Social Research at the University of Bedfordshire, stated that “evidence suggests the UK may be facing an epidemic of alcohol-related harm among older people”.

So what is prompting these “silver soaks” to bend their elbows? A spokesman for Age Concern was quoted as saying: “Later life sometimes brings bereavement and isolation, which in turn can affect mental health and wellbeing. Older people are more likely to drink at home, every day and on their own, suggesting that some use it as ‘self-medication’ to deal with life’s stresses – perhaps without an awareness of just how much they are drinking.”

In some ways it makes sense that these figures are rising. The “baby boomer” generation who consumed more alcohol than their parents’ generation are now growing grey, and if you are used to drinking why wouldn’t you seek its comfort when the difficulties of age replace the ease of youth? The reasons given for alcohol abuse in old age are typically loneliness, pain, ill-health, depression and bereavement. Today one in five older men and one in ten older women drink enough to cause themselves physical harm, and these figures have risen for men by 40 per cent and women by 100 per cent over the last 20 years.

Yet the dangers of drinking to excess can multiply with age. The livers of older people are less able to break down alcohol, while alcohol makes a dangerous bedfellow when combined with pain-killers, sleeping pills and the pharmacopeia of drugs that can frequently accompany older people on a daily basis.

The answer, of course, is moderation, although I accept that this can be exceedingly difficult to do when a pattern is set and the misty comforts of alcoholic oblivion are suddenly withdrawn.

Yet if it can be achieved, the health benefits of moderate alcoholic consumption for older people can be surprising. The latest findings should prompt us to pep up our pensions to ensure a ready supply of Krug or Perrier Jouet, for scientists at the University of Reading have found that one or two glasses of champagne each week can help to ward off memory loss and the onset of dementia and other degenerative brain disorders. In their paper published in the journal Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, they stated that the phenolic compounds found in Champagne help improve our spatial memory, which we use when performing calculations and more complex tasks.

We’ve already learned that those who consume light to moderate amounts, the equivalent of two to seven drinks per week, of beer, wine and distilled spirits, are less likely to develop heart disease than those who are heavy drinkers or teetotal. It seems that cautious sipping can increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol, which can help to decrease the risk from blood clots and inflammation, as well as allowing one’s body to benefit from the antioxidants found in alcohol.

Clearly, given my appreciation for an early evening cocktail, I’ve no desire to set up a latter-day temperance movement, but while I don’t think it is necessary to put the stopper back in the bottle completely, I do think it would be wise if we could set it back behind the bar a little earlier in the evening before a delicious buzz becomes befuddled intoxication. We want to enjoy our old age; it shouldn’t be days of all wine and no roses.