Older Swedes drink more — and are more prone to accidents, disease

March 12, 2019 - 10:31

Twenty-seven per cent of 75-year-old Swedish men and 10 per cent of 75-year-old Swedish women are considered to be hazardous drinkers, a new report says. Elderly people are more sensitive to alcohol than younger people and therefore are more at risk from drinking-related problems.

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Swedish researchers have seen a strong increase in alcohol consumption in the elderly, particularly among women. Since the 1970s, the proportion of elderly women who could be considered heavy drinkers has increased from 1 per cent to 10 per cent. (Illustration photo: CREATISTA / Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)

Consumption of alcohol in Sweden is dropping among younger age groups —especially among people under the age of 30 — but is growing dramatically in people over the age of 65.

As a result, older Swedes now drink almost as much as their younger countrymen. 

These are among the findings of a group of researchers from Sweden, the United States, Canada and Australia, who have recently assembled an overview of research on the elderly and alcohol use in Sweden.

Higher blood alcohol levels

An important underpinning for the researchers’ findings is a simple physiological fact: older people have higher blood alcohol levels in their blood per unit of alcohol consumed compared to someone who is younger.

“This partly explains why the risk of disease and accidents in the elderly also increases with relatively small increases in the amounts of alcohol consumed,” says Sven Andreasson, a professor of social medicine at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

For older individuals who want to drink alcohol, the researchers suggest that consumption be limited to a maximum of two units of alcohol per day. Ideally, consumption in the elderly should not exceed one unit of alcohol each day, they say.

One unit of alcohol equals 0.33 litres of lager, one glass of wine or 4 cl. liquor.

Older people more sensitive to alcohol

Older people are more sensitive to alcohol than younger people in part because of physical changes that are part of the ageing process, the researchers say.

Ageing typically involves losing both weight and muscle mass, which affects how alcohol is metabolized. The liver enzymes that break down alcohol also don’t work as well in the elderly than in younger people.

This effect can also be exacerbated by the fact that many older people take medications that in turn can affect the body’s chemistry or metabolism.

Alcohol can both reduce and change the effects of medication, including strong painkillers, anti-anxiety medicines, antidepressants and blood pressure reducing drugs. The researchers note that 80 per cent of all Swedes over the age of 65 use at least one prescription medicine.

“Even drinking low amounts of alcohol can add to the health and safety risks already present during later life,” the researchers wrote.

The Center for Education and Research on Addition (CERA) at the University of Gothenburg collaborated on the report with the Swedish Society of Medicine, the Swedish Society of Nursing, the Responsibility for the Future Foundation, and IOGT-NTO, which is an independent organization that looks at the effects of alcohol and narcotics on individuals and society.

Strong increase in alcohol consumption

Researchers have seen a marked increase in hazardous drinking among Swedish 75-year-olds.

Between 1977 and 2006, the proportion of older women in Sweden who could be considered heavy or hazardous drinkers increased from 1 per cent to 10 per cent. Among older men, this proportion increased from 19 per cent to 27 per cent.

The report attributes an increase of 50 deaths per 100,000 people in elderly Swedes solely to the increase in alcohol consumption.  The researchers also report that roughly 600 Swedes over the age of 65 die each year from one of seven alcohol-related cancers.

No protective effect?

Several studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption among the elderly can have a protective effect on health, however, particularly on cardiovascular disease.

But the researchers behind the Swedish report question whether this is even  biologically possible.

They have referenced a 2103 article written by Norwegian researcher Hans Olav Fekjær that assessed reports on moderate drinking and reduced risks from as many as 20 different diseases.

Fekjær concluded that the studies that show a reduced risk did not demonstrate a causal effect, and that “the evidence for the harmful effects of alcohol is undoubtedly stronger than the evidence for beneficial effects.”

The authors of the Swedish report concur.

“More than 60 conditions have been identified as either partially or entirely caused by exposure to alcohol. There is no doubt that alcohol is a major preventable cause of premature mortality for all ages,” they wrote.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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