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Why do older people hit the bottle?

International study compares dangerous drinking habits of men and women across Europe

(October 2016) Alcohol consumption has traditionally been higher in Europe than in the rest of the world, according to the World Health Organization. While binge drinking is usually seen as a vice of younger generations, alcohol consumption of middle-aged and older people has been steadily increasing since the 1990s. But what makes men and women aged 50 years and older hit the bottle?

To find out about the factors associated with hazardous drinking, researchers analyzed data from about 66,000 persons living in 18 different countries collected by the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE 2011-2013).

Hazardous drinking: Too much and too often

Criteria for being classified as a “hazardous drinker” were respondents’ answers to three questions about how much and how often people consumed alcohol, as well as the frequency of binge drinking episodes (an adaptation of the AUDIT-C test). The results showed that about one in five people aged over 50 years belong in that category - but with large differences by countries, gender and age group.

The study showed that in countries with very strict regulations regarding alcohol advertisement, the number of hazardous drinkers aged over 50 years was lower. At the individual level, smokers or people who used to smoke where more often hazardous drinkers than others. Participants with an immigration background consumed less alcohol than others, presumably due to cultural or religious differences between the country of origin and the country of residence.

Depressions and alcohol – a risk for men

Among the male participants of the survey who reported symptoms of depression, the ones aged 50-64 consumed more alcohol compared to those older than 65 years. The researchers from Barcelona Public Health Agency ( explained this behavior by the need of middle-aged men to escape from distress by drinking, whereas depression in older people is rather caused by loneliness or lack of a social network, thus reducing their intake of alcohol. As for the female participants, no direct connection between depressions and hazardous drinking was found.

Women with higher formal education drink more

Hardly surprising, the proportion of hazardous drinking was higher in men than in women (26.3% compared to 17.5%) – a fact that researchers explained by traditional gender roles predominating among older generations. Interestingly, women who had a higher formal education showed to be more prone to drinking, which might reflect their higher economic and social freedom. On the other hand, men consumed more alcohol when they were divorced or widowed – while women under the same circumstances reported to drink less.

Prevalence of hazardous drinking per country in men aged 50 or older

Prevalence of hazardous drinking per country in women aged 50 or older

Study by Marina Bosque-Prous, M. Teresa Brugal, Kenio C. Lima, Joan R. Villalbí, Montse Bartroli, Albert Espelt (2017): Hazardous drinking in people aged 50 years or older: a cross-sectional picture of Europe. Geriatric Psychiatry 817-828. DOI: 10.1002/gps.4528


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