LONDON — Alcohol can be a hard habit to kick, especially if one has been indulging for the better part of their life. If an older adult in your life needs some extra motivation to put the bottle down, it might be a good idea to show them the latest findings from University College London. Researchers have concluded that maintaining a heavy drinking habit into old age (59+) leads to a significantly bigger waistline and increased risk of suffering a stroke.
Many lifelong drinkers may feel like it’s too late to make a change, but this research has some good news in that regard. Cessation of heavy drinking activities at any age will result in major health benefits. It’s never too late to better oneself.
To draw their conclusions, the research team utilized long-term data collected on U.K. civil servants aged 34-56 years old at the beginning of the observation period – way back in 1985-1988. The final dataset used for this study consisted of 4,820 older adults between the ages of 59 and 83 years old. Participants’ average age was 69 and 75% were men.
All in all, heavy alcohol consumption over one’s lifespan was associated with high blood pressure, poor liver functioning, a higher stroke risk, a larger waist, and a larger BMI in old age. These observations held true even if a heavy drinker stopped before the age of 50, but again, quitting heavy drinking at any point in one’s life resulted in significant improvements.
“Alcohol misuse, despite the common perception of young people binge drinking, is common among older adults, with alcohol related hospital admissions in England being the highest among adults aged over 50,” explains first study author Dr. Linda Ng Fat in a media release. “Previous studies have focused on single snapshots of consumption, which has the potential to mask the cumulative effects of drinking. This study raises awareness of the effect of alcohol consumption over the life-course.”
Heavy drinkers were picked out using a standard alcohol use screening test among U.K. physicians. The test is quite simple and only contains three questions: “How often do you drink?” “How much do you drink?” “How often do you binge drink? (6 or more beverages)”
An individual who reported consuming three or four drinks four or more times per week would be classified as a heavy drinker.
For each and every decade of their life (starting with the teenage years), study participants were asked to retrospectively answer those questions. Those lifetime responses were used to place each person in one of the following categories: never hazardous drinker, former early hazardous drinker (stopped before the age of 50), former later hazardous drinker (stopped around the age 50 or after), current hazardous drinker, or consistent hazardous drinker (drank heavily through every decade of their life).
More than half of studied drinkers (56%) were classified as heavy or hazardous drinkers during at least one decade of their life. Another 21% were current heavy drinkers and 5% were constant heavy drinkers. Interestingly, the majority of current or consistent heavy drinkers were male, white, and very often occupied senior level positions in their respective jobs.
Hazardous drinkers of all kinds had much higher blood pressure and poorer liver function than those who never drank heavily. Current heavy drinkers, meanwhile, had a three times greater risk of stroke than people who had never drank heavily, and former heavy drinkers still had a two times greater risk than non-heavy drinkers of non-cardiovascular disease mortality.
Lifelong hazardous drinkers also had much higher waist sizes and BMI. The more regularly and recently a person reported drinking heavily, the larger they became. In comparison to people who never drank heavily, participants who drank heavily early in life before kicking the habit had a .46 inch larger waist. People who drank heavily later in life before stopping had .74 inch larger waist, current heavy drinkers had a .96 inch larger waist, and lifelong heavy drinkers had a 1.5 inch larger waist.
“This suggests that the longer adults engage in heavy drinking the larger their waistline in older age. That is why it is beneficial, along with other health benefits, that adults reduce heavy drinking earlier rather than later,” Dr. Ng Fat comments.
“Despite high prevalence of stroke and liver disease steadily increasing in the United Kingdom, heavy drinking remains common among older adults,” concludes senior study author Professor Annie Britton. “Early intervention and screening for alcohol consumption, as part of regular check-ups, could help reduce hazardous drinking among this demographic.”
The study is published in Addiction.