Why that quiet drink at home can play havoc with your health
Middle-aged drinkers put their lives at risk without knowing it, writes Liz Kearney
Published 17/08/2010 | 05:00
Peter Dunne loves wine. After all, it's his business. As a director of Mitchell and Sons Wine Merchants, it's his bread and butter -- as well as a lifelong passion.
And, like lots of other wine buffs, the evening meal simply wouldn't be the same if it wasn't washed down with a glass of something nice.
But major heart surgery last September has forced the 59-year-old to reconsider his drinking habits.
"The heart problems weren't drink-related, but still, when you've had a heart incident you have to take it more seriously. I've cut back by about 25pc. Now I just have a couple of glasses each day with dinner, but even that would go over the recommended units."
Peter's not alone in realising that regular drinking -- even when it seems relatively moderate -- could harm his health. While the culture of youthful binge drinking has grabbed the headlines in recent years, new research suggests it is a different type of drinker whose health is now at risk: the middle-aged, middle-class, daily tippler.
Surveys carried out for the Office for National Statistics in the UK showed that among 45- to 64-year-olds, more than one in 10 admitted that they had drunk every day in the previous week. For the over 65s, that figure was even higher -- 15pc of that group admitted every day, compared with just 1pc of under 24s. Experts believe the figures here are likely to be similar.
The glass or three of wine at dinner or the few beers in front of the telly can very quickly add up to more than the weekly recommended limits -- 14 units for a woman, 21 for a man. And exceeding these limits can lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease and stroke.
"There are quite a number of people who think they're drinking in a sensible fashion, but they're actually drinking more than is good for them in their own homes," says Rolande Anderson, an alcohol addiction counsellor and national alcohol project director for the Irish College of General Practitioners.
"The smoking ban and the drink-driving enforcement -- both of which are welcome -- have meant that people now drink more at home. And the disadvantage of that is that they are then drinking their own measures, rather than pub measures."
Those measures, inevitably, are a little more generous than the one your local barman might give you. If you pour yourself a vodka, you could very easily be pouring a double, or even a triple, pub measure. And if you allow yourself just the one glass of wine, but that glass is the size of a small balloon, you've probably consumed two or maybe three units of alcohol.
To complicate matters, wine today is stronger than it was a decade ago. A traditional bottle of claret might clock in at just 12pc alcohol volume. But thanks to rising global temperatures, wines now contain far more alcohol and today 16pc volume wine is not unheard of.
Given that wine drinking has been on the rise here for many years -- there was a 363pc rise in our consumption of wine between 1986 and 2006, from 0.62 to 2.87 litres per adult per year -- that can pose a big problem, particularly for the middle-aged professional classes whose love affair with the fruit of the vine has blossomed.
'With big glasses, people are saying they are having two or three drinks but it is a half a bottle, which is a lot more than three standard drinks," says Rolande. "That middle-class, middle-income bracket are often drinking much more than they think they are."
If alcohol-related health campaigns have in the past targeted binge drinking, there's evidence the governments are now targeting this so-called 'moderate' drinker.
The latest government-sponsored TV ads in the UK portray a couple of 30-something women downing a bottle of wine after a hard day at work. They think they're just unwinding, but the ad goes on to highlight the 'invisible' damage their drinking is doing to their liver, heart and kidneys. The message is that drinking causes damage you can't see.
In the US, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is educating doctors on the dangers associated with 'moderate' drinking by creating character called Darryl on its educational website. Darryl is 35, has a regular job, is married and enjoys a few beers at home in front of the telly most nights. He's a little overweight as he doesn't take as much exercise as he should.
He drinks an average of four drinks a day, so he is no alcoholic -- but the NIAAA reckons there are 36 million Darryls in the US alone and it's beginning to get worried about the strain on the health system.
Here, Meas, the drinks industry group that promotes what it describes as 'sensible drinking', says it is changing its advertising tack to address 'responsible drinking in the home'.
But these campaigns will have to work hard to counter the positive messages we've been fed about moderate drinking -- after all, isn't it the case that a small amount of red wine can help protect against heart disease? These mixed messages about booze don't help, says Rolande Anderson.
"The truth of it is that probably a small amount of alcohol for women and men over the age of 50 would have some benefits for certain types of conditions -- but you have to weigh that against other potential harms.
"This is not about alcoholism, this is about general health. Quite a large number of people are getting into serious trouble through habitual drinking. We have problems that people don't associate with alcohol -- obesity, headaches, depression, family disputes, problems with children. So from a physical and mental health point of view, the idea of regular daily drinking should be definitely discouraged."