Research by a north-east academic has highlighted the alcohol problems faced by the region’s older people.

In the first major study into this issue, University of Sunderland graduate and public health specialist Dr Annette Payne explored the drinking problems experienced by those living in sheltered housing.

Dr Payne’s research – for which she interviewed elderly people in the Newcastle area – has inspired Newcastle City Council to distribute leaflets highlighting the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption for this group.

Dr Payne found that the key issues leading to problematic drinking in older people were lack of social contact, mental health difficulties, domestic violence, family relationships and unemployment.

Dr Payne said, “Contrary to many perceptions of ‘later life’, this research found that older people’s lives do not get easier as they age so the reasons they turn to alcohol are both complicated and specific to the individual.”

“As we grow older, it gets harder for the body to cope with the effects of alcohol.”

“It’s also important to remember that alcohol mixed with medications can make people more susceptible to falls, accidents and mobility problems.”

“Current alcohol guidelines just group everybody together and don’t take into account the vulnerability of older people to alcohol.”

“The leaflet we created has been given out to make people aware of the risks and effects drinking can have as they age.”

Dr Payne – who works for Newcastle City Council and has recently been awarded her PhD by the University of Sunderland – said many of the stories she heard from her interviewees were harrowing. Often difficulties earlier in life had led to excessive drinking habits.

Dr Payne said, “One woman told me how her marriage had broken down and she’d been left to care for a child. She was unable to cope.”

The research carried out by Dr Payne concludes that more support is needed to help older people in sheltered accommodation control their alcohol consumption. The study also suggests that a set of alcohol consumption guidelines specifically aimed at older people should be developed.

Older people are less likely than other age group to know what the current recommended limits on alcohol intake are.

As bodies age, they have a tendency to lose muscle, gain fat and break down alcohol at a slower speed. This means that though older people take longer to react to alcohol, they are generally more sensitive to its effects.

Dr Payne said, “Policy should move away from a one-size-fits-all model of alcohol management to a more individualised approach to support the adjustment of later life events.”

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