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Alcoholism in the over-50s: tips to cut back

Many of us can’t imagine a good night out (or in) without a glass or two of wine. Worryingly, the fastest growing group of ‘hazardous’ drinkers is women in their mid-40s to mid-60s. More worrying still, many don’t know they have a problem until it’s too late.

Lots of my patients believe that a glass of wine is a single unit – think again. A ‘standard’ wine bar serving of 175 ml is just over two units, and a ‘large’ glass of wine, at 250 ml, has about three units – there are nine units in a bottle of wine. A single measure of pub spirits is one unit and a pint of ‘normal’ beer is about two, although some beers and lagers are much stronger.

What are the recommended alcohol limits?

New alcohol guidelines were launched by the Chief Medical Officer last year. They now recommend not more than 14 units a week – spread over several days – for men or women. The government defines ‘binge drinking’ as a woman drinking more than six units, or a man more than eight, in a single day. There are lots of risks linked with binge drinking – as well as the risk of accidents (and more), it increases your risk of stroke in the short term. You may be alcohol dependent if you can’t do without a regular drink; you can drink more than you could without feeling ‘drunk’; and you know you should cut down (or feel guilty about your drinking).

Women and the rise of ‘drunkorexia’

Across the UK, there were over one million hospital admissions related to alcohol last year. That’s 7% more than three years ago and nearly a third more than a decade ago. One in four women has drunk over six units in a day over the previous week. And many, conscious of the hefty calorie count in alcohol, are choosing to skip meals and ‘save’ their calories for alcohol – so-called ‘drunkorexia’.

The good news about alcohol trends

Overall, there are some positive trends as far as alcohol related harm is concerned; 39% of 11- to 15- year-olds have drunk alcohol, down from 61% just a decade ago. Teenagers may feel all grown up, but their brains are still developing and they’re much more vulnerable to harm. Young people have had a bad reputation in the past for binge drinking, but the numbers doing that has fallen by over a third.

The latest annual figures suggest that spending on alcohol drunk in the home has fallen by 5.7% in three years, and spending on alcohol outside the home has dropped by 13.4%. Now that’s not great news for publicans, and I’m not enough of a killjoy to want to see neighbourhood pubs all go out of business. But I was speaking recently on national radio with a publican, and complaining about the fact that non-alcoholic drinks in pubs cost almost the same as alcoholic ones, despite the extra tax the publican pays on alcohol. He admitted that publicans make much more money on non-alcoholic drinks. Maybe if prices were fairer they’d have more business – and we’d all be healthier.

What are the long-term health risks associated with drinking alcohol?

Along with your liver, alcohol can damage your heart, your gut, your bones – and increase your risk of cancer (especially breast cancer). If you drink daily, you’ll become tolerant of the short term effects of alcohol – but not the long term risks.

Tips to help you cut back

There are lots of ways to help yourself and have more fun than ever:

  • Try totting up your alcohol intake for a week – you might be shocked.
  • Then have a couple of alcohol-free days a week
  • Alternate alcohol with soft drinks if you’re out
  • Try drinking only with a meal
  • Team up with a friend and give up alcohol for a month.

If you’re keen to cut down on alcohol, speak to your GP. There’s lots of support available. If you’re tech savvy, try downloading the Drinkaware unit calculator to your phone so you can keep tabs – but don’t cheat!

You’ll soon notice the changes – you’ll sleep better, have more energy, lose some weight – and do your liver a favour at the same time!

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