Why baby boomers are hitting the bottle like never before

Disillusioned over-50s risk serious health problems because of alcohol

As an 18-year-old in 1966, I would go to the pub on a Saturday night with five girlfriends, before an alcohol-free dance at the local “palais”. We each drank a half of cider and one green chartreuse because, while it tasted like an antidote to dyspepsia, it was 55% proof. That was it; that was all we could afford. Even if we had the money, shame, social convention and a fear of what the neighbours might tell your mother restrained female, if not male, drinking. Now, for young and old, we live in different times.

Last week Tony Rao, a consultant psychiatrist who has long campaigned on the dangers of older-age drinking, warned that the number of over-50s admitted to hospital because of the amount of alcohol they drink has more than trebled in a little over a decade.

Anyone over 55 who habitually reaches for a glass or several might like to steel themselves sufficiently to consider an alcohol-free day by reading chapter five of The Drink Less Mind: The Truth About Overdrinking by Georgia Foster. It lists the negative side of a bit of a tipple, which includes: impaired coordination, depression, heartburn, nausea, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, anxiety, falls, dementia, fractures (divorce isn’t on the list, but could be) and, of course, the cancers, including those of the mouth, throat and rectum. And still the booze appears to be going down the necks of the children of the 1960s and 1970s (but not their offspring and grandchildren) in ever-increasing quantities. The question is: why?

Alcohol has become the baby boomers’ very own form of Russian roulette. Everyone knows the magic figure, no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for men and women (previously, men were permitted 21). And yet more people are taking the risk of going over the top.

In 2015 there were 3,627 admissions of over-50s with alcohol-related brain damage, compared with 994 in 2002. Experts say that the condition could even be twice as prevalent as that, because it is poorly diagnosed. (It can also be argued that in the past older drinkers were more concerned to conceal their habit). “If an educated woman turns up at a GP’s surgery or A&E with a fall,” Tony Rao says, “no one asks about her alcohol intake.”

A study conducted by Rao, published late in 2015, found that 21% of over-65s – one in five – exceeded the alcohol limits then set at 14 and 21 units a week. Rao defines “a heavy drinker” as a woman who regularly drinks one large glass of wine a day (one and a half glasses for a man). Since denial is a major part of boozing, the first reaction of a drinker is obviously to lie about the size of the glass.

Alcohol is a relaxant. It’s a reward. In comparison to other countries, the UK can also argue it’s bad, but not that bad. According to the World Health Organisation, the country with the highest consumption of alcohol per person from the age of 15 is Belarus, with 17.5 litres (of pure alcohol) a year; then come Moldova, Lithuania and Russia. In Russia over-15s consume 15 litres of pure alcohol per year – the rough equivalent of 155 bottles of wine or 1,500 shots of vodka . The UK is 25th on the global list with 11.6 litres consumed per adult per year.

However, according to Rao, in England between 2007-08 and 2013-14 the number of hospital admissions wholly attributable to alcohol rose by 30% in the 25-54 years age group, and by 70% for those aged 55 and above.

Numbers are still relatively small (109,720 aged 55-plus in 2013-14), but baby boomers are only at the outset of what could be a very long journey into retirement that equates to an awful lot of time for habitual and escalating drinking, the side-effects of which cost the NHS billions. So Rao is right to ask that “a brighter light is shone on the scale of the problem”. But what might that light reveal?

Retirement is an issue. The reshaping of what can be 30 years or more of useful post-work life has yet to happen in the UK. This is unlike, for instance, the US, where baby boomers who seek more than decades of “silver fun” in “the third age” can retrain and have a second career and give something back to the community, leaving little time for hangovers.

Ageism and its pressure to become time-defying, seventysomething Peter Pans might also provide reasons why the bottle becomes more attractive the older we grow. Other factors may be that drinking at home is far more common now than for previous generations; more people over 50 are living alone, partly because we are all living longer; and Rao suggests baby boomers may have been seduced by watching years of advertising about the glamour of booze before restrictions were put in place.

Anyone past middle age will remember the promise of what might happen with a martini in hand: sun, sea and summer in Monte Carlo was a promise repeated several times a week on cinema screens and television, echoed by the refrain of “a Double Diamond works wonders … ” without any health and safety warnings. Baby boomers ought to be smarter, but a lot can happen by osmosis with a large advertising budget.

Another major factor, however, goes back perhaps to the scale of disappointment experienced by a postwar generation that believed it was building a better, more equal world based not on the individual but a sense of collective goals. “What does alcohol mean to our generation?” asks Christina Fraser, a relationship counsellor with Coupleworks and herself a baby boomer. “We drink to fill a void. Our parents had a job, retired and dropped dead two years later. They worked hard and had fewer opportunities. The baby boomers were given the promise of a world that was full of possibilities. Instead, we are seeing that world close in.”

In Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, the economist Richard Layard says that what builds happiness at a community level is trust (in scant supply now), a lack of loss (tell that to the Remainers) and a “sense of shared purpose” (also absent), while a concern with status and envy about what others have contaminates the civic heart. “If your sole duty is to achieve the best for yourself, life becomes just too stressful, too lonely – you are set up to fail. Instead,” Layard writes, “you need to feel you exist for something larger …each person counting.”

Most of us can put the glass down rather than go for a refill – an excuse for another drink has always existed – but never before have so many of us had so long to drink ourselves under that table. And that’s a strange price to pay for so-called “progress”.


Yvonne Roberts

The GuardianTramp

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