When a conversation turns to the challenges of addiction, it is frequently younger generations who are being discussed. Our personal, and the media’s focus, is generally concerned with illegal drug use. Or abuse of prescription drugs, in the case of the recent upsurge in the consumption of opioids produced by pharmaceutical companies. The USA is going though an opioid crisis that sees some 115 Americans die daily through overdosing on pain relief drugs like Fentanyl. It is a growing concern in the UK as well.
A sobering thought
However, the issue of addiction is not confined to the young, or to drugs. Currently, one of the emerging crises facing healthcare services is the rise of alcohol addiction in the over 50s. Unlike the young drinkers, portrayed by the media for all their Friday-night, anti-social behaviour the length and breadth of the country, the baby boomer generation is quaffing alcohol behind closed doors. Katherine Brown from the Institute of Alcohol Studies sums it up: “This is the first generation of home-drinkers who are far more likely to buy cheap supermarket alcohol than visit their local pub. They are drinking more than their parents and it’s no surprise their health is suffering.”
Believe it or not, it is those aged 55 to 74 who are the hardcore drinkers in Britain, and we outstrip any other age group, including millennials, for alcohol-related injuries, diseases and conditions. According to NHS Digital Data, over 500,000 adults aged 55-74 were admitted to hospitals in England during 2015-2016 for alcohol related problems. I confess that I was surprised by this figure.
It’s not just the UK
This is a growing crisis in Europe and other parts of the developed world. It is expected that by 2020, the number of people over 50 receiving treatment for substance misuse problems, will double in Europe and treble in the USA. This is for alcohol, opioids and cannabis use. In Australia, for example, the largest percentage increase in drug misuse between 2013 and 2016 was among people aged 60 and over, with this age group mainly misusing prescription drugs. Those over the age of 50, also have higher rates of illicit drug misuse, particularly cannabis, than younger Australians. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, as Baby Boomers were the first generation to use cannabis in the Swinging Sixties.
What’s the cause?
Karen Tyrell of the charity Addaction, says that amongst older adults, drinking is a way of coping with age-related issues, such as retirement, bereavement and loneliness. It is also being recommended that automatic screening for addiction problems is introduced into health checks for dementia and any conditions that point to liver problems. Dr Tony Rao, a psychiatrist specialising in old age, suggests that older people should limit their drinks to a maximum of 11 per week, instead of the 14 drinks in the government guidelines.
Personal anecdotes of how their alcohol abuse began vary from those whose wine hobby escalated into an addiction, to those who used it as a coping mechanism when they felt anxious and fearful about life.
What’s to be done?
Experts, such as Dr Rao, argue that more services specifically targeting older adults are urgently required, however, this suggestion comes at a time when addiction services are being dismantled in the UK. Katherine Brown thinks that there should be tighter regulation around pricing and promotions, which we have seen some movement on in recent months.
With alcohol in particular being such an accepted part of our culture, perhaps it is time we had a national discussion about our drinking and what it can lead to. And, maybe the media could help by not just focusing on the young, and help raise our awareness around the problem of addiction at any age.