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How Often Do Older People Have Alcohol Problems?

In a study review published in January 2015 in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Sheffield used data gathered from a range of the world’s industrialized nations to determine how often people in various countries age 51 and older experience diagnosable alcohol problems and subsequently modify their problematic drinking behaviors. In the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, alcohol consumption and problematic drinking behaviors tend to reach their highest levels in young people in the early stages of adulthood. However, while researchers and public health officials often focus their attention on these younger individuals, older adults also drink fairly frequently and experience exposure to alcohol-related harm.

Older U.S. Adults and Alcohol Intake

Federal researchers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) use an annual project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to quantify the number of Americans age 12 and older who consume alcohol. SAMHSA uses the same project to quantify participation in heavy drinking and binge drinking, two well-known forms of problematic alcohol intake. Regular involvement in heavy drinking (consumption of alcohol above a generally acceptable moderate level) is noted for its ability to sharply increase the odds of developing diagnosable alcoholism and/or non-addicted alcohol abuse. The rapid drunkenness associated with binge drinking produces an array of short- and long-term health dangers, and frequent binge drinkers may also meet the criteria for heavy drinking.

In 2013 (the last year with fully reported data as of early 2015), older adults between the ages of 50 and 54 maintained the fifth-lowest monthly drinking rate of any adult age group in the U.S. (59.9 percent). In descending order, the other adult groups with the lowest rates of monthly alcohol intake were people between the ages of 60 and 64 (53.6 percent), people between the ages of 55 and 59 (52.5 percent), young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 (43.8 percent) and adults age 65 and older (41.7 percent).

Older U.S. Adults and Drinking Behaviors

Americans age 50 and older have the country’s lowest adult monthly rates for both binge drinking and heavy drinking. People between the ages of 50 and 54 have a monthly binge drinking rate of 23 percent and a monthly heavy drinking rate of 5.6 percent. People between the ages of 55 and 59 have a monthly binge drinking rate of 15.9 percent and a monthly heavy drinking rate of 3.9 percent. People between the ages of 60 and 64 have a monthly binge drinking rate of 14.1 percent and a monthly heavy drinking rate of 4.7 percent. People age 65 and older have a monthly binge drinking rate of 9.1 percent and a monthly heavy drinking rate of 2.1 percent.

How Often Do Diagnosable Problems Occur?

While federal sources in the U.S. are good at making age breakdowns of potentially problematic drinking behaviors, they don’t typically do as good a job making age breakdowns of actual cases of alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or non-dependent alcohol abuse). For instance, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism only records the total number of Americans age 18 and older who qualify for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis (roughly 17,000,000 people in 2012). The University of Sheffield researchers conducted the multinational review published in Alcohol and Alcoholism in response to the relative lack of data focused on the alcohol-related outcomes of older adults. Altogether, they drew information from more than two dozen sources dating from the year 2000 and later. These sources included nationally representative survey projects and peer-reviewed journals.

After completing their review, the researchers concluded that the world’s industrialized nations (the countries most likely to produce high-quality research) do not comprehensively record data on older adults’ diagnosable alcohol problems. However, the available data indicates that adults age 51 and older develop alcohol use disorder at a generally equivalent rate in the U.S. and other economically powerful countries. Two nations, America and Korea, have the largest numbers of older drinkers who successfully halt alcohol intake and remain sober for at least one year, while Finland and England have the smallest numbers of older drinkers who achieve these health-supporting changes in alcohol use.

The review’s authors concluded that overall drinking rates and binge drinking rates among older adults vary considerably from industrialized nation to industrialized nation. They believe that such country-to-country differences may limit the general applicability of alcohol research conducted in any one nation.3

Posted on March 18th, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

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