Biggest ever study of its kind reveals attitudes towards alcohol and ageing could be leaving over 50s at increased risk of harm from alcohol. 

A hidden population of over 50s at increasing risk from their drinking may well be hidden in plain sight according to the Drink Wise, Age Well report released today. Attitudes held and experienced by older drinkers may stop them for asking for help in reducing their alcohol use.

Respondents who drank more than they used to gave age-related reasons for doing so. Furthermore, over three-quarters (83%) of those surveyed who were at increasing risk from alcohol use had never been asked about their drinking by someone who might be able to help. Risks associated with alcohol include depression, poor sleep, memory problems, and trouble with relationships as well as more serious illnesses such as cancer or liver disease.

The biggest-ever study of its kind into drinking behaviours among the over 50s surveyed over 16,700 people from 10 areas across the UK. Categories of risk were defined using the international recognised AUDIT screening tool.

Preliminary findings are:

  • Over half of respondents aged over 65 believe that people with an alcohol problem have themselves to blame. Nearly a quarter think they should feel ashamed.  
  • The five most frequently reported reasons for those who drink more now than in the past are age-related. These include retirement, bereavement, loss of sense of purpose, fewer opportunities to socialise and finances.
  • Around 4 in 5 of those who are at increasing risk of harm from alcohol said that on no occasion had relatives, friends, doctors or other health workers been concerned about their drinking or suggested they cut down.
  • 1 in 4 said they would not tell anyone if they needed help.

Julie Breslin, Drink Wise, Age Well Programme Lead said:

“One positive from the Drink Wise, Age Well study is that 80% of those surveyed who drink, are drinking at lower risk levels. However, of those who are drinking at more risky levels the majority have never had anyone, including health professionals, talk to them about their alcohol use. Also a quarter of people would not know where to go for help nor would they ask if they needed it. Thanks to support from the Big Lottery Fund, Drink Wise, Age Well is working to tackle the stigma around alcohol use in the over 50s population and do this through raising awareness, training frontline staff to ‘ask the question’ and ensuring appropriate help is available to those when they do look for it.”

Baroness Sally Greengross from the International Longevity Centre - UK said:

“This report gives us an opportunity to start putting some wrongs to rights in relation to older adults and alcohol. We are all living longer lives; however, it is vital to ensure this is a life of quality and good health. If the number of people that are drinking at increasing risk levels continue this into later life there may be some serious impacts both on their own health and at a societal level. At a policy level we need to create a climate where sensible drinking is considered within the wider scope of healthy ageing and longevity.”

David McCullough, Royal Voluntary Service Chief Executive said:

“What this report gives rise to are some concerning characteristics in relation to higher risk drinkers. More often than not, they are not in a relationship and live alone, and have a longstanding illness or disability. 1 in 3 higher risk drinkers cite being down or depressed as a reason for drinking and 41% say they drink because they are lonely or bored. Tackling social isolation among older people is a key commitment of Royal Voluntary service and this report highlights that we need to be much more vigilant and aware of the potential for high risk drinking in a population that are more isolated. We are delighted to be partners of the Drink Wise, Age Well programme so we can tackle this together.”

Drink Wise, Age Well is supported by the Big Lottery Fund as part of Rethink Good Health, a £25 million UK-wide programme to inform policy and practice UK-wide in preventing alcohol misuse amongst older people, specifically those aged 50 and over. It works in five areas to help prevent harm caused by alcohol in the over 50s, promote alternatives to alcohol in communities, build skills in communities to help at risk over 50s and seeks to get the issue on the health agenda.


Drink Wise Age Well media contact:
Steve Williams, Communications and Public Affairs:
Tel: 0141 221 8390

Addaction press office: 020 7017 2747
Out of hours: 07818 587696

Notes to Editors:

  • The AUDIT Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test identifies three categories of drinker:

o LOWER RISK: This group is defined as: AUDIT score of 0-7 Or: Men who regularly drink 3-4 units per day. Women who regularly drink 2-3 units per day. This group is defined as ‘lower risk’ rather than ‘no risk, as evidence is accumulating that no level of alcohol use is without risk entirely. This is particularly true for older adults.
o INCREASING RISK DRINKERS This group is defined as: AUDIT score of 8-15 or Men who regularly drink more than 3 to 4 units a day, but less than the higher risk levels. Women who regularly drink more than 2 to 3 units a day, but less than the higher risk levels.
o HIGHER RISK DRINKERS This group is defined as: AUDIT score of 16+ or Men who regularly drink more than 8 units a day or more than 50 units of alcohol per week. (5 bottles of wine or 20 pints)
Women who regularly drink more than 6 units a day or more than 35 units of alcohol per week. (14 pints lager or 3 ½ bottles of wine)

  • Drink Wise, Age Well will be delivered over a seven year period by a consortium led overall by Addaction and in Northern Ireland by Addiction Northern Ireland, and including Royal Voluntary Service, International Longevity Centre UK and Drug and Alcohol Charities Wales. The programme will be evaluated by an academic team led by the University of Bedfordshire’s Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team (SMART).
  • Each partner will take the lead in a demonstration area:
    Western Health and Social Care Trust, Northern Ireland: Addiction Northern Ireland (contact Director Thelma Abernethy or Locality Manager Joanne Smith )
    Cwm Taf Wales: Drug Aid (Director, Caroline Phipps or Locality Manager Richard Broadway )
    Devon County, England:  Addaction (Contact Clare Pawley)
    Sheffield City, England : Royal Voluntary Service- (Contact Emma Wells )
    Glasgow City, Scotland: Addaction (Contact Graeme Callander )
    Research and Evaluation: Sarah Wadd, SMART who will lead a UK wide academic team
    Policy- Sally Bamford. ILC-UK

    • The Big Lottery Fund supports the aspirations of people who want to make life better for their communities across the UK. It is responsible for giving out 40% of the money raised by the National Lottery and invests over £650 million a year in projects big and small in health, education, environment and charitable purposes.
    Since June 2004 it has awarded over £8 billion to projects that change the lives of millions of people. Every year it funds 13,000 small local projects tackling big social problems like poor mental health and homelessness.

    Since the National Lottery began in 1994, £34 billion has been raised and more than 450,000 grants awarded.



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