SOURCES: Eric Collins, M.D., physician-in-chief, Silver Hill Hospital, New Canaan, Conn.; Bruce Goldman, director, Substance Abuse Services, The Zucker Hillside Hospital, Glen Oaks, N.Y.; BMJ Open, news release, July 23, 2015
THURSDAY, July 23, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Are you over 50, making a good income, physically healthy and active? A new British study suggests you might need to be wary of one potential downside: a higher risk for excessive, problem drinking.
A team led by Jose Iparraguirre, chief economist at the British charity Age UK, found that so-called "successful agers" are at heightened risk for harmful drinking.
It's a "middle-class phenomenon," the researchers wrote: "people in better health, higher income, with higher educational attainment and socially more active are more likely to drink at harmful levels."
In the study, Iparraguirre's team tracked survey responses from more than 9,000 people across England, age 50 and older, who were polled in 2008-2009 and 2010-2011.
The risk of problem drinking peaked for men in their early 60s and then gradually decreased, while the risk in women fell along with age.
An "increasing" risk of alcohol woes was defined as 22-50 units of alcohol a week for men and 15-35 units a week for women, and a "higher" risk was set at more than 50 units a week for men and more than 35 units a week for women.
For the study, a pint of beer or a small glass of wine was equal to 2 units of alcohol. This means that a person drinking 50 units a week would consume 25 beers or glasses of wine every seven days, or about three to four servings each day.
The researchers found that higher income was associated with a higher risk of problem drinking for women. Smoking, a higher level of education, and good health were all linked to higher risk in both women and men.
Employment status was not a significant factor, but being retired was associated with higher risk in women.
Depression or loneliness were not linked with higher risk, but problem drinking was more common among men who lived on their own, including those who were separated or divorced, the study found.
Among men, alcohol woes were also more common among whites than minorities, according to the study, which was published online July 23 in the journal BMJ Open.
"Our findings suggest that harmful drinking in later life is more prevalent among people who exhibit a lifestyle associated with affluence and with a 'successful' aging process," the researchers conclude. That means that issues with alcohol "may then be a hidden health and social problem in otherwise successful older people," they said.
How would "living the good life" boost an older adult's odds for problem drinking? One expert in the United States had some theories.
"The 'successful' group may have more leisure time" to indulge in daytime drinking, compared to people forced to work more hours or hold down two jobs, said Dr. Eric Collins, physician-in-chief at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn.
Healthier older people may also believe that their robust health somehow protects them against the negative impact of excessive drinking, he said.
And for affluent people, healthier bank accounts may allow them "to buy greater amounts of alcohol than their less successful peers without incurring economic strain," Collins said.
Another expert believes that all of this points to the importance of spotting older people at risk.
"All health care providers should adopt brief universal alcohol screening procedures," said Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Services at The Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. "In this way we can begin to talk openly with patients about their use of alcohol and the risks involved as they age," he said.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about older adults and alcohol.