Leave OAPs to choose to booze

Posted on August 25, 2015

'Middle-class pensioners risking health by drinking a bottle of whisky a week', declared the Telegraph on Monday in response to a report on BMJ Open by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry and King's College London. Around 21 per cent of the over-65s covered in the study were drinking more than the 21 units of week that the government suggests is safe. Those who had only just retired, or may even have put off retirement for a year or two, were the most likely to drink beyond these 'safe' limits – probably because they still have the income to drink as much as they want.

First things first: the majority of those studied – 79 per cent – were drinking within even the government's ludicrously low definition of 'safe' drinking. A bottle of whisky sounds like a lot, but it is just four measures of spirits per day, or the equivalent of less than two pints of regular lager. So most people are not drinking very much at all, and even among the 'unsafe' drinkers, most are consuming quantities that won't keep us awake at night, though they might make a decent nightcap. The notion that vast swathes of older people are boozing themselves to an early grave is a myth.

Of course, in among these people will be a small percentage who have a drinking problem or are at least drinking enough to exacerbate the general health problems of old age. But most do not have a problem at all, except in the minds of certain sections of the medical profession. One of the report authors, Mark Ashworth, told the Telegraph: "Reducing alcohol misuse is important to prevent premature death and serious negative health effects, such as alcoholic liver disease, which are big burden on our health system. Alcohol excess carries additional risks in the older population such as falls and confusion."

One might ask just how "premature" such premature death can be in a study population that already had an average age of 73.7 years. Such drinkers might die at a younger age than if they had forsworn the demon drink altogether, but since on average they had already passed their three-score-and-ten this is hardly a case of dying tragically young. For these people a couple of drinks every night might mean a lot more to them than an extra year or two of old age.

You might also question whether older drinkers are really such a burden on the health system. After all, the elderly are the biggest recipients of healthcare anyway. If we really want to go down the road of reducing people's lives to how much they cost the NHS, then it should be noted that the really heavy drinkers, the ones making a noticeable impact on their health through their alcohol consumption, die on average earlier than those who have a drink now and again, so saving the state potentially years of pensions and social care, with the bonus of all those booze taxes to boot.

The best person to decide how much is an appropriate amount to drink is the drinker. Only they can balance any harm against the pleasure or relief that comes from having a drink. What we don't need is doctors becoming ever more interventionist to try to curb people's drinking habits – potentially creating an unhealthy and dishonest relationship with patients bored of being nagged – and we certainly don't need governments making alcohol even more expensive in order to limit our choices. Maybe it's these medics, clearly stressing over our bad habits, who could do with a good stiff drink.