People aged 50 and older who are healthy, active, sociable and wealthy are at greater risk of harmful alcohol consumption, according to new research published in BMJ Open.

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Good health, activeness, wealthiness and a good social life may raise the risk of harmful drinking for men and women aged 50 and older.

Study author Prof. José Iparraguirre, of the Research Department at Age UK, says the findings indicate harmful drinking may be a “hidden health and social problem” among what he calls “successful agers.”

As such, Prof. Iparraguirre believes guidelines for alcohol consumption are warranted among this population.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 16.6 million adults in the US have an alcohol use disorder. Each year, more than 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes, making alcohol consumption the third leading preventable cause of the death in the US.

While alcohol consumption is most common among younger adults, the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that almost 40% of adults aged 65 and older consume alcohol, with some of these experiencing drinking problems.

For his study, Prof. Iparraguirre set out to determine the drivers behind harmful drinking – defined as consuming 50 units per week for men and 35 per week for women – among adults aged 50 and older.

Prof. Iparraguirre analyzed the survey responses of 9,251 men and women aged 50 and older who were part of the 2008-09 and 2010-11 English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing (ELSA).

As part of the survey, participants were asked about their weekly alcohol consumption alongside a number of factors that may influence their drinking habits, including marital status, caring responsibilities, educational attainment, smoking status, diet, physical activity levels, loneliness and depression, self-reported health, employment status and social engagement.

The results of the analysis revealed that for men, the risk of harmful drinking peaked in their early 60s before falling. For women, the risk of harmful drinking reduced as they aged.

Women with higher income were found to be at higher risk of harmful drinking than those with lower income, while among men and women, good health, smoking and higher educational attainment were associated with greater risk of harmful drinking.

Feelings of loneliness and depression were not linked to greater risk of harmful drinking. However, men who lived alone had a heightened risk for harmful drinking – including those who had separated or divorced from their partner – as were men of white ethnicity.

The employment status of participants did not appear to affect their risk of harmful drinking, though women who were retired were found to be at greater risk.

Caring responsibilities reduced the risk of harmful drinking among women, according to the results, while religious beliefs were not associated with reduced likelihood of risky drinking among men or women.

Prof. Iparraguirre also assessed changes in alcohol consumption among participants between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 ELSA.

He found that among women, loneliness, younger age and higher income were associated with greater likelihood of risky drinking by 2010-11. For men, caring responsibilities, loneliness, older age and lower income were associated with reduced risk of harmful drinking by 2010-11.

Based on these findings, Prof. Iparraguirre believes the problem of harmful drinking among individuals aged 50 and older is a “middle class phenomenon.”

“People in better health, higher income, with higher educational attainment and socially more active are more likely to drink at harmful levels,” he notes, adding:

Our findings suggest that harmful drinking in later life is more prevalent among people who exhibit a lifestyle associated with affluence and with a ‘successful’ aging process.

Harmful drinking may then be a hidden health and social problem in otherwise successful older people. Consequently, and based on our results, we recommend the explicit incorporation of alcohol drinking levels and patterns into the successful aging paradigm.”

Earlier this month, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting an individual’s eye color may predict the risk of alcohol dependence.

The research team – from the University of Vermont in Burlington – suggested that people with light-colored eyes – particularly those with blue eyes – are more likely to be alcohol dependent than those with brown eyes.