Sunday 4 December 2016

Retired drinkers: Why too many pensioners are enjoying themselves too much

More and more of our sixtysomethings are putting their health at risk as they enthusiastically toast their golden years

Chrissie Russell

Published 23/04/2015 | 02:30

Beer
Beer
Retired drinkers, picture posed

Popping magnums of champagne, sipping cocktails on sunloungers and enjoying pints after endless rounds of golf, just a sweeping look at the cards on display in your local newsagent will confirm one thing: retirement is a time for winding down and drinking up.

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But behind this fun-loving facade is the reality that many of today's retirees might be toasting their golden years a little too enthusiastically.

According to CARDI (Centre for Ageing Research and Development Ireland), "alcoholic misuse is on the rise in people over 65" with 10pc of those 65 years and over consuming alcohol on four or more days a week.

In 2009 a UK study revealed that 13pc of over-60s reported drinking more since giving up work and a US report discovered the most frequent binge drinkers are 65-plus.

It's a trend that's hard to quantify however, because few seniors would care to classify their drinking as 'problematic' - on the contrary, surely living the good life demands a glass in hand?

"There's definitely a lot of older people who enjoy a well-deserved honeymoon period at the start of any retirement," says Peter Kavanagh, Information and Networking officer for Active Retirement Ireland (ActiveIRL.ie) "There's a temptation to really enjoy yourself, particularly if you're leaving a career that has left you financially well-off, but often we probably equate alcohol with relaxing more than we should."

Compared to their parents, today's babyboomer retirees have grown up in a permissive drinking society. Their mothers probably never had a drink but today's sixtysomethings are accustomed to cocktails at lunch and wine clubs.

Fuelled by advertising and cultural influences - think the boozed-up antics of Morgan Freeman and Robert de Niro in Last Vegas - it's no wonder many retirees feel they've a free pass to drink, especially after a lifetime of responsibilities, raising children and working hard.

"Once you leave work, there can be an attitude of 'where's the harm?'" says Kavanagh.

The answer is, on your health. The guidelines for alcohol consumption specify a weekly upper limit of 17 units for men and 11 units for women, but that doesn't take into account the fact that the body's ability to deal with alcohol can change with age.

"There's some evidence to suggest that physiological changes related to ageing, such as decreased body water content and decreased lean body mass, may result in reduced alcohol tolerance," says Dr Erika Ruigrok from Dublin's Rutland Centre (rutlandcentre.ie). Put simply, a sixtysomething probably won't metabolise alcohol as well as they did in their 30s.

"You might not be doing enough damage to see me with a liver problem but I would be concerned about other ways alcohol could impact on health," warns Dr Orla Crosbie, Consultant Hepatologist at Cork University Hospital and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

"If you're on blood pressure medication, for example, alcohol is going to exacerbate the side effects. You're also more susceptible to trips and falls. Your kidneys won't function as well and you're going to be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol as you get older."

A big problem, she says, is a tendency to stereotype just who is a 'problem drinker'.

"It doesn't matter if you're the poor chap on the park bench or someone enjoying fine wine at a dinner party - if you're drinking too much, you're putting your health at risk."

There is another kind of retirement drinker, those who rely on alcohol to cope with the emotional impact of leaving work.

"Retirement is a complex thing. People whose careers became their identity can find it a difficult adjustment to make," says Cork-based counselling psychologist Sally O'Reilly (Sallyoreilly.com and co-author of twowisechicks.com). "There can be a big loss of social contact, power or a shift in financial circumstances. That fantasy retirement home in the sun may not be realistic or the marriage may no longer be fulfilling.

"All these emotional trials can be triggers for some people to rely on alcohol for comfort, distraction and an emotional painkiller."

Kavanagh agrees: "It can be like falling off a precipice and there's very little in terms of pre-retirement planning in Ireland. People can find themselves with more time on their hands, a reduction in social outlets and in danger of relying on alcohol."

He adds: "Our advice is to enjoy retirement, you deserve it, but try to find new things to do, meet new people and try to fill your life with as much activity as possible." Despite what the cards say, you don't need a glass in your hand to have fun.

Why do we get drunk?

By Colin O'Gara

Drinking alcohol leads to a host of immediate changes in brain chemicals. One of the key brain chemicals involved in mediating the euphoric effects of alcohol is dopamine. It tells us that something we have ingested is pleasurable and consequently we seek more of it. This is why some of us will continue to drink to the point of drunkenness.

Alcohol hijacks our decision-making processes and tells us to continue drinking when we should have stopped.

An important question is: who is most likely to run into difficulties with alcohol - either by getting drunk or becoming addicted? The answer lies in both genetics and the environment.

It is clear even on casual observation that alcoholism runs in families in Ireland. Genes determine how quickly we get drunk and how likely we are to want to get drunk again.

Life has become more demanding through recessionary pressures. People are working harder and longer. Mobile-device usage has also increased dramatically in the past 10 years, adding to the hectic pace of life. The stressful environment leads people to seek pleasure and reward from substances. Alcohol is the starting place for many who are stressed as it is ubiquitous in our society.

Intoxication with alcohol has long been and remains a part of Irish life. Irish people are, however, also becoming more informed about the toxic effects of alcohol and its ability to produce negative medical outcomes. The most sobering data of recent times are within the studies of relative harm which demonstrate of all the drugs used by societies, alcohol is the most harmful to self and others. Yes, more harmful than a long list of illegal drugs including crack cocaine and heroin. This probably comes as a surprise to many readers, but not to those of us who work in the addictions treatment field, who encounter the misery of alcohol overuse on a daily basis.

Dr Colin O'Gara

Consultant Psychiatrist

St John of God Hospital

Irish Independent

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