• High risk drinking is declining in the UK except among over 50s
  • ONS figures reveal 45% rise in alcohol-specific deaths in over 50s since 2001
  • Three out of four residential rehab services in England exclude older people    

A new report being launched in the House of Lords tomorrow (21st November) has found that ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research is denying older people the treatment they need to recover from harmful drinking.

The report for Drink Wise, Age Well [1] asserts that some policies and practices are actually in breach of Equality and Human Rights legislation and calls on UK governments to develop alcohol strategies that recognise that older adults’ needs may be different to those of younger people.
Higher risk drinking [2] is declining in the UK except among people who are age 50 and over and with an ageing population the trend is of major concern, not least to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which has set a target of at least 10% relative reduction in harmful use of alcohol by 2025.

Recent ONS figures further underline the urgency of the situation. ONS Alcohol-specific deaths [3] in the UK: registered in 2016 show a 45% increase in alcohol-specific deaths in the over 50s in the past 15 years (since 2001). 
The new report, however, states that “Ageist policies can be identified easily and abolished in a relatively short period… with very little impact on resources”.

Calling Time – Addressing ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research was compiled by the Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team at the University of Bedfordshire, Addaction and the International Longevity Centre-UK based on extensive review of UK strategies, policies and legislation, published literature and data on clinical trials, as well as a polling of professional opinion and focus groups with problematic drinkers.

Its main findings include:

  • Practitioners discriminating against older adults including managing issues relating to alcohol use (e.g. vitamin injections) rather than referring them for alcohol treatment and young adults being prioritised over older people
  • Some of the reasons given are perceptions that older people are too old to change and that it’s not worth intervening because of life expectancy. There is also a sense that the care needs of older people are too complex for treatment
  • A study [3] for Alcohol Research UK featured in the report found that “three out of four residential alcohol rehab services in England exclude older people based on arbitrary age limit”
  • The Equality Act 2010 states that “services must provide equal services regardless of age or disability”. It is therefore unlawful for services “to provide inferior services, or refuse to provide services because of a person’s age, unless there is a good or sufficient reason”
  • Age is no predictor of care needs. It is quite possible that the needs of a 40 year-old will be higher than those of a 65 year-old
  • Adults over the age of 65 are excluded from 46% of clinical trials for alcohol treatment/interventions.

Writing in the report Foreword Baroness Dianne Hayter said, “Contrary to popular belief, harmful drinking is not the preserve of the young. In fact, many young people have followed advice and favour the gym or sports field over the pub and have been brought up never to drink and drive. Indeed, the only age group in the UK where drinking has increased  is the 65-74 year-old. So our consideration – and prevention – of problem drinking has to turn to the retired, or those who’ll approach it over the coming years.

“Drink Wise Age Well has drawn up guidance and recommendations for a swathe of organisations and professions, providing a vital tool in promoting health, happiness and a productive retirement for a growing generation.”

Key recommendations include: 

  • Remove arbitrary age limits for alcohol services
  • Governments should develop alcohol strategies which incorporate age as a cross-cutting theme and explicitly recognise that older adults’ needs may be different from those of younger adults
  • Following the example of the Welsh Government, convene an advisory panel to develop substance misuse guidance focused specifically on older adults
  • Inform alcohol services of their legal obligation to provide equitable care and take action if services are consistently discriminating against older adults
  • Ensure decisions on whether or not to refer someone to rehab is made on ability to benefit. Age alone should not be a barrier to referral
  • Ensure that older adults are included in clinical trials and research studies unless there is good justification for not doing so.

Julie Breslin, Head of Drink Wise, Age Well said:

“Changing lifestyles and the older demographic means for the first time in recent history older people in the UK drink more and are more likely to exceed recommended guidelines than other age groups, but help and support has not yet caught up. Older people are being written off – sometimes unlawfully - and we believe this report has the potential to change that.”           


Issued by and further information from Nancy McLardie. Media & Communications Manager, Drink Wise, Age Well, tel: 07583 133294; email: 
Please avoid the words addict, alcoholic, user or abuser, as suggested in the Associated Press Stylebook 2017, in order to stop the stigmatisation of a health issue.

Supporting quotes 

From Thelma Abernethy, Caroline Phipps
Dr Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Research UK and Alcohol Concern, said:

“Harmful drinking among the over 50s is on the rise and the way we tackle it requires an urgent response. This report, together with our research report on age discrimination within residential rehabilitation services, shows very clearly that concerted action is needed to ensure that those drinking at harmful levels can access the support they need. We urge policy-makers and practitioners to implement the recommendations in these reports fully and without delay to save lives and to improve outcomes for drinkers and their families.”

Notes to Editors

1. Led by the behaviour change charity Addaction  and supported by the Big Lottery Fund, Drink Wise, Age Well was established in 2014 to help people aged 50+ make healthier choices about alcohol as they age.

The seven-year programme is being delivered across five “demonstration” areas – Glasgow, Sheffield, Devon, Cwm Taf in Wales and the Western Trust Health & Social Care area in Northern Ireland covering the Foyle area, Fermanagh and Tyrone. 

The Drink Wise, Age Well programme offers an integrated, community-based approach around four main activities: prevention and campaigning; delivering one-to-one support; developing individual and community resilience to alcohol misuse and training and workforce skills development.  
2. The United Kingdom is currently experiencing a generational shift in terms of alcohol use.  Harmful use of alcohol is declining across the whole population but increasing among older adults.  In England, those aged 65-74 are the only age group where daily alcohol consumption is increasing [1, 2]. In Scotland, harmful, hazardous and binge drinking is increasing amongst those aged 65-74 but decreasing in other age groups [3].  In Wales, those aged 65 and over are the only age group where drinking above the daily guidelines is increasing [4]. In Northern Ireland, the most noticeable increases in alcohol consumption in recent years have been amongst those aged 60-75 [5].  Of equal concern is the population that will soon make the transition into old age.  Today, for the first time in recent history, drinkers aged 55-64 in England and Scotland drink more and are more likely to exceed the recommended weekly guidelines than any other age group [1, 3].

3. ONS Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2016

A full copy of ‘Calling Time – Addressing ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research’ may be viewed here (insert link).

A full copy of Alcohol Research UK’s report on age limits in alcohol rehab services is available here (insert link).      

Statistical references

(1) National Statistics. Statistics on Alcohol, England, 2017.
. (2) Home Office. The Government’s Alcohol Strategy. 2012
(3) Scottish Government. Trend tables for Scottish Health Survey key results up to 2015. 2016
(4) National Statistics. Welsh Health Survey, 2015. 2016
. (5) Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety. Adult drinking patterns in Northern Ireland survey 2013. 2014


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