Older Australians are more likely to drink alcohol at levels putting their long-term health at risk according to new research by La Trobe University.
The study, published on Monday in Drug and Alcohol Review, found that most of us adhere to the long-term risk guidelines of two Australian standard drinks per day. But a small group (about 28 per cent) of Australians are drinking too much and account for 84 per cent of the total alcohol being consumed.
Contrary to the increasingly high rates of one-off binge-drinking sessions among younger Australians (putting them at short-term risk of poisoning, accidents, blackouts, sexual risk taking and violence), it is the 35- to 54-year olds who are drinking more, more often.
“You’ve got a small amount of people drinking a lot and I think that’s the main thing to come out of this paper,” says Sarah Callinan, from the Centre for Alcohol Policy at La Trobe University and the study’s lead author.
“Even though only a quarter of Australians drink outside these guidelines, so the idea that most Australians drink sensibly does seem to hold… over half of all the alcohol sold in Australia seems to be being consumed outside these long-term risky guidelines.”
Beer, wine and spirits are the most popular beverages, but those going beyond the guidelines tend to hit the cask wine and liqueurs, drinking an average of four to five drinks in a sitting, increasing their risk of liver and heart diseases, a range of cancers, diabetes and various other health issues.
As previous research has shown, men and women are drinking similar quantities with 35 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women in the study drinking to risky levels.
Callinan says she is “less and less” surprised by the number of older people drinking to excess.
“There’s a generation towards the middle-aged and a bit older and, in the past, they might have dropped off their consumption a bit more and they’re not doing that,” she says. “On the other side of that… young people are drinking less.”
Interestingly, because of the way we are drinking – in what we deem to be a ‘civilised’ environment – we tend to think we’re immune from the dangers.
“People are drinking a lot at home,” Callinan says. “I think there’s a lot of focus on drinking in licensed premises but 63 per cent of all alcohol is consumed at home.
“There’s been some work done in the UK, showing a lot of middle-aged drinkers consider their own drinking at home to be this ‘safe drinking’ that doesn’t count and that ‘risky’ drinking is young people at pubs.”
Callinan believes this may be because people tend to think only of the short-term risks of drinking.
“If you’re looking at short-term harm, there is evidence to show that, drink-for-drink, you’re more likely to experience harm if you’re out at a licensed premise, but when you’re looking at these long-term medical harms from alcohol that’s just the result of the amount of alcohol being consumed,” she explains.
The AIHW says that excessive alcohol use remains the biggest drug problem in Australia, and Callinan reminds that alcohol consumed at home counts.
She suggests “keeping an eye on not just how much you drink on any one occasion, but also how much you drink over the course of a week if you want to avoid those long-term harms such as cancer from alcohol”.
How alcohol affects your body and your health
Alcohol affects the body in a variety of ways. As it is absorbed into the body through the stomach and small intestines, it flows through the bloodstream releasing a range of feel-good chemicals.
When we drink to excess however, the effects aren’t so pleasing.
As well as weakening the immune system, it can “wreak havoc” on your digestive system, affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and weakens the heart muscle. Alcohol affects the brain’s communication pathways lowering our inhibitions but also making us less coordinated, sleepier and less able to think clearly.
As the body can’t store alcohol, it breaks it down, mostly via the liver. “Through a complex metabolic process the liver firstly changes alcohol into acetaldehyde, a highly toxic substance,” explains Drinking and You. “The acetaldehyde is converted by the liver into acetate, a harmless substance, which is then turned into carbon dioxide and water which are then simply excreted from the body.”
Excessive drinking can also cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances that interfere with proper functioning.
Growing community of people quitting booze
More Australians are choosing to cut back or quit alcohol completely. The Hello Sunday Morning initiative has more than 50,000 followers on social media platforms.
“Hello Sunday Morning is a movement towards a better drinking culture,” the government-backed website explains.”Our vision is a world where drinking is an individual choice, not a cultural expectation. A world where confidence and identity aren’t measured in standard servings. A world of better choices, fewer hangovers and unforgettable Sunday mornings.”
Since 2010 Hello Sunday Morning, where people share pictures and stories of hangover-free weekend activities, has grown to be the largest online movement for alcohol behaviour change in the world.