Hazardous rise in drinking seen among Kiwi baby boomers, research finds

We often give young people a hard time for drinking too much, but a new piece of research says we also need to think about our boozey boomers.

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Study author Andy Towers says between 35 and 40 per cent of older New Zealanders may be drinking hazardously. Source: Breakfast

Study author Andy Towers, a researcher at Massey University, said the hazardous rise in drinking among older people is for a number of reasons.

"First, we haven't looked for it before. We have focused for a long, long time around the world on youth drinking and now, in the last decade, we've seen a rise in older adults drinking," he told TVNZ1’s Breakfast.

"That's sparked a lot of people around the world having looked at their own countries, and in New Zealand we’re doing the same. And suddenly, we're aware that between 35 and 40 per cent of older New Zealanders may actually be drinking hazardously, so that’s not anything we’ve thought of."

He said research typically focuses on hazardous drinking in youth because its impact is easier to see compared to that of older people.

"It's absolutely part of the fact," he said. "I mean, you don't see a lot of older adults, 50-plus even, burning cars and writing in the streets and going out to Courtenay Place at 2 o' clock on a Saturday morning and causing mayhem.

"That's part of the issue. And so the focus, really, is on broadening our understanding of who is drinking in New Zealand and realising that it is actually across a spectrum, both young and old."

Mr Towers said the driving force behind older people's dangerous drinking habits is not just binge-drinking, but also its normalisation.

"Yes, binge-drinking raises immediate harm, but it's actually drinking for a lot of Kiwis for a long time that they've assumed it's normal and OK, but that's like drinking four or five days a week, maybe three or four drinks – people say, 'Well, that's what everyone does.'

"Now we're saying that's not normal internationally, and it actually raises a lot of potential harm for your bodies, especially as you get older and you have chronic conditions and medications that, in combination, put you at way too risk for harm. So it's not just things like drinking a lot for anxiety or angst - it's actually drinking across the spectrum, including social drinking, that's probably just a bit too much.”

He said his research found that teenagers have cut down on drinking due to "a number of factors", including messaging and how they're being raised.

"The youth of today have a very, very different context in which they’re being raised," Mr Towers said. "They have parents whose grandparents were probably binge-drinkers or drinking quite a lot. Their parents were drinking but were turned around as parents and said, 'You know what? We're not OK – we’re accepting that sort of drinking behaviour.' And so the way we're shaping the norms for our children has changed.

"So the context is much-changed, as well as the fact that youth of today - or anyone below 25 – there is a much stronger focus on health and wellbeing and even looking good, body image with social media. And so there is much more of a focus on, 'I'm not going to drink, I'm not going to mess up the way I look.' That's not what was happening 20, 30 years ago."

Mr Towers said one of the best ways to combat hazardous drinking is to "actually ask New Zealanders to just talk about alcohol".

"It's not a taboo subject. It can be personal, a little bit like asking somebody about their driving – asking about their alcohol is just as personal – but we need to be brave enough to talk to your mum, your dad, your friends and say, 'Hey, maybe I'm drinking too much,' or maybe, 'You're drinking a little too much and this is the effect it's having on your health.'

"We need to actually say, 'It's not just about youth, it's drinking across the lifespan.'"