Background To determine the effect of recently proposed age-specific alcohol consumption guidelines upon the estimated proportion and number of older individuals potentially at risk of alcohol-related harm. Nationally representative cross-sectional population data from Health Survey for England (HSE).
Methods Random sample of the general population living in private households in England. For reliable comparison of adult alcohol consumption by age and sex across a five-year period, data were extracted from HSE 2003 and 2008 for all participants aged 16 or over. The sample included those who drank in the previous week, never drinkers, non-drinkers and adults who reported not having consumed alcohol in the week prior to interview. Excluded from the sample were those for whom data on drinking behaviour or unit alcohol consumption were missing (around one per cent of the total available sample). The sample from HSE 2003 thus comprised 14,718 participants, while the 2008 sample comprised data on 14,939 individuals.
Results The total number of individuals aged 65 or over classified as drinking in excess of daily recommended limits would have increased to over three million in 2008 under age-specific guidelines proposed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, equating to an at-risk population of 809,000 individuals greater than found within the 16–24 age group during the same year. Proposed revisions to existing binge drinking classifications defined almost 1,200,000 people aged 65 or over as hazardous consumers of alcohol in 2008, equating to a rise of 258% by comparison with existing definitions.
Conclusion The introduction of new age-specific drinking guidelines put forward by the Royal College of Psychiatrists would increase the elderly population drinking in excess of daily recommended limits by more than two-fold, and increase by more than three-fold the number of binge drinkers. However, there remains at present a dearth of evidence sufficient for guiding age-specific revisions to existing and already problematic alcohol consumption thresholds. Nevertheless, vigilance regarding heavy late-life drinking remains important in light of older people’s heightened sensitivity to the effects of alcohol and the rising number within the sub-population potentially at risk of alcohol-related harm.
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