Drinking trends in older adults

Drinking patterns among adults aged 45 years and above 

Alcohol use among older age remains common, although it decreases with advancing age.

In 2020/21, more than three-quarters (average 76.5%) of every age group over 45 years reported drinking in the past year.  More than 75% of men in these older age groups reported drinking.

More than 3 in every 4 NZ adults aged 45+ have consumed alcohol in the past year

The prevalence of drinking in the past year among older men and women is shown below:

Hazardous drinking patterns remain prevalent throughout older New Zealanders

New Zealanders aged 45 years and above comprised ~41% (337,000) of all hazardous drinkers in 2020/21.

Whilst 18 to 24 year olds maintain the highest (34.9%) prevalence of hazardous drinking in the country (41% among men aged 18-24 years), hazardous drinking patterns remain prevalent throughout older age groups in New Zealand, particularly among men. In 2020/21, the prevalence of hazardous drinking among men was:

  • 30.9% among men aged 45-54 years;
  • 26.6% among men aged 55-64 years;
  • 17.5% among men aged 65-74 years, and
  • 7.3% among men aged 75 years and above.

A substantial proportion of older men drink hazardously, placing themselves and others at risk of harm

Substantial increases in hazardous drinking prevalence among older adults

Of particular concern, there have been significant increases in hazardous drinking over time among older age groups in New Zealand. Following declines in hazardous drinking between 2006/07 and 2011/12, the prevalence of hazardous drinking increased from 2011/12 to 2015/16. These increases were substantial:

  • increased by more than 50% among those aged 45-54 years (11.7% to 18.5%);
  • increased by more than 70% among those aged 55-64 years (8.4% to 14.4%); and
  • almost doubled for those aged 65-74 years (from 5.5% to 10%).

Therefore, all of the positive reductions in drinking that had been achieved between 2006/07 and 2011/12 were lost by 2015/16. The level of increase was so great that some age groups (35-44yrs, 45-54yrs, 65-74yrs) had significantly higher levels of hazardous drinking in 2015/2016 than in 2006/07.

No real change in the prevalence of hazardous drinking in the past six years of comparable surveys (between 2015/16 and 2020/21). Compared to 2019/20, there was a significant reduction in hazardous drinking among the the 45-54 yrs age group in 2020/21 (note that last year showed a big one-off spike in drinking in this group; it has now returned to usual levels).

Should these trends continue, older people will represent a much greater proportion of hazardous drinkers in New Zealand. This is due to the population of older adults being predicted to double by the year 2036 (based on the projection from 2013). At this point, approximately 24% of the population will be aged 65 years and over. High levels of alcohol use in older populations will have significant implications on our strained healthcare system and will compromise well-being in older adults.

Other drinking measures of older adults

The annual New Zealand Health Surveys utilise the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) to assess the prevalence of hazardous drinking in New Zealand. However, this test is not age-specific. Other measures have been developed to quantify alcohol use in older people. This includes the CARET (Comorbidity Alcohol Risk Evaluation) that takes into account other factors that relate to alcohol use and harm among older adults, not just an older person’s drinking frequency and quantity. A report into older people's drinking can be found here.

Comparisons with other countries 

New Zealand drinkers were found to have some of the highest levels of drinking across the countries studied. The proportion of frequent heavy drinkers was higher in New Zealand compared with most countries, including England and the United States.

The differential effects of alcohol use on older adults

There is considered no safe level of alcohol use among older adults.

No safe level of alcohol use exists for older adults.

Older adults are more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol at any level of consumption. The same amount of alcohol produces a higher blood alcohol concentration in older than younger adults due to changes in body composition, leading to a longer time for the acute effects of alcohol to diminish. The ability to absorb, metabolise, and excrete alcohol remains largely unchanged with increasing age.

Thinking skills and memory, co-ordination and mobility may also be more affected by alcohol among older adults. Alcohol also affects emotions and mood.

Conditions such as chronic health problems, medication interaction, and other risky behaviours including drinking driving, further contribute to more harmful effects of alcohol on older adults.

Although there has been debate over the potential “health benefits” from low-risk drinking (particularly for older drinkers), recent research suggests that the findings of benefit were more likely the result of methodological differences in studies and under-adjustment for confounding factors (e.g. personal characteristics, socioeconomic status) that relate to different drinking patterns within the population. It is advised that there is no overall positive health benefit for older adults from drinking.

New Zealand research supports the findings that there are differences in the characteristics of older drinkers who have moderate versus high-risk intakes. It is important to take into account of these differences when examining health outcomes from drinking. The former were more likely to be wealthier, whilst the latter were more likely to have lower levels of economic standards than other drinking profiles.

For more information, check this button RESEARCH ON OLDER NEW ZEALANDERS' ALCOHOL USE