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Seniors’ drinking habits put their health at risk

Study finds two thirds of seniors drink at harmful levels and commonly engage in binge drinking.

People in their 60s and older who enjoy a drink may be indulging a little too much and putting their health at risk, a study suggests.

While binge and problem drinking is usually associated with young people, experts say older Australians are more likely to drink alcohol daily and have little idea about how much they are consuming.

A recent study of more than 100 older people taking part in an early intervention program run by Peninsula Health in Melbourne found two-thirds drank at harmful levels and more than 10 per cent were at risk of suffering alcohol-related health problems.

Many seniors also don't realise drinking can interfere with medication or that their bodies process alcohol more slowly as they age.

Psychologist Stephen Bright, who helped design the program, said people often start drinking more alcohol after they retire from work and binge drink to cope with loneliness or grief from the loss of a loved one.

"One client, his wife died and he would put on a video (with her in it) and just drink for five or six hours straight, sobbing. He'd wake up hung over but wouldn't drink for another few days but then the pattern would return," Bright said.

"So we are seeing binge drinking among older adults but it's in a different context to young people, who binge drink to party."

The Older Wiser Lifestyle (OWL) program assesses older people's drinking habits, educates them about safe alcohol limits and possible risks from medication.

Bright, who would like to see the program introduced nationally, said one of the biggest dangers faced by older drinkers was suffering a potentially fatal reaction when mixing alcohol and medications.

He said GPs often did not warn older people about mixing alcohol and medication and sometimes put down alcohol-related health problems such as memory loss to ageing.

Bright will discuss the OWL program on Monday at the Conference of the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs in Hobart.

Elsewhere, the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol has used a public survey to apply pressure on the government to introduce mandatory warning labels for alcoholic beverages.

Research carried out for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education found 58 per cent of people supported the labels and 86 per cent were in favour of health warnings about the risks of drinking during pregnancy.

"The harm is there, the evidence is there, the public support is there - it is time for governments to act," said Professor Mike Daube, Co-Chair of the Alliance and Director of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth.

He said consumers of all ages had a right to clear, informative warnings about the risks of alcohol use.

Todd Harper, also a Co-Chair of the Alliance and CEO of the Cancer Council Victoria, said this strategy could be effective in both raising awareness of health risks and changing people's behavior, because they target consumers at critical decision points when they are buying and when they are drinking alcohol.

"Decisions about health information and warnings should be made by governments and health authorities, not by an industry whose first interest is in maximising sales of its products. We urge all Australian Health Ministers to make a commitment to introducing strong, effective alcohol warnings".

The NAAA represents more than 55 health and community organisations from across Australia.


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