Research showed a fifth of drinkers over 65 were getting through more than the recommended weekly limit for alcohol – 21 units for men and 14 for women – and most were more affluent members of society.
The top 5 per cent were downing more than 49 and 23 units respectively – at least three and a half pints a day for men or three and a half glasses of wine for women. Dr Mark Ashworth, of Kings College London, said: “When we think about excessive drinking, we often get the image of the old down and out in the street drinking to excess. But we need to think more about the elderly middle classes.
“This is the first comprehensive body
of evidence about the amount of alcohol the over-65s are drinking, and some of the findings are truly astonishing. The top 5 per cent are putting away an average of 42 units a week: that is a bottle of whisky.”
He added: “In my work, we usually get clusterings of health problems among ethnic communities and the poor. This is the opposite, affecting the white middle classes.”
The study said “unsafe older drinkers are more likely to be of higher socio-economic status”, with the problem most prevalent among men.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, analysed anonymous electronic GP health records for 27,991 patients in Lambeth in inner-city London and identified 9,248 older drinkers, of whom 1,980 had exceeded recommended government guidelines.
Psychologist Dr Tony Rao said: “As the baby boomer generation become seniors, they represent an ever increasing population of older people drinking at levels that pose a risk to their health.
“This study shows the need for greater awareness of the potential for alcohol-related harm in older people, particularly those of higher socio-economic status, who may suffer the consequences of ill health from alcohol at an earlier age than those in previous generations.”
The study showed alcohol drinkers were more likely to be ethnically white than those from Caribbean, African or Asian backgrounds.
White people made up 59 per cent of participants, but 68 per cent of those who reported drinking alcohol and 80 per cent of the unsafe drinkers. The Irish were 5 per cent of the study population, but 6 per cent of the alcohol drinkers and 8 per cent of the unsafe drinkers.
Dr Ashworth said: “Based on our findings, the elderly who were most at risk were those from the white British population rather than from an ethnic minority, and those who were wealthier and better educated rather than those from a more deprived background.”
Age UK director Caroline Abrahams said: “Drinking low to moderate levels of alcohol can often be an important part of social life for older people.
“However excessive drinking in later life is a growing and serious problem. The numbers of older people admitted to hospital as a result of intoxication are also on the rise.
“Research shows that high-income groups are most at risk; because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger.”