How much is too much? Over-50s drinking habits in the spotlight

Aug 01, 2021
Many older Aussies are hitting the bottle harder than they should. Source: Getty

While overall alcohol consumption in Australia is at its lowest level in 50 years, it’s not such good news for older Aussies, with research showing that over 70s are the most likely to drink daily and represent the highest proportion of alcohol-related deaths.

According to the research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) of the 1,317 alcohol-induced deaths registered in 2019, the highest rate was for older people aged between 60–64 years, while those aged 55–59 and 65 and older came second and third.

The research also found that those aged over 70 were the most likely to drink alcohol daily and those aged 50–59 were one of the age groups most likely to exceed the lifetime risk guideline for alcohol consumption.

The statistics are in line with trends seen by sobriety coaching company Thrivalist, with coach and co-founder Lucy Quick telling Starts at 60 that empty nesters in particular can be heavily affected by 20 to 30 years of repeatedly turning to alcohol to handle stress and celebrate successes.

Quick says the issue of over drinking in older age groups is only increasing as the country faces continued lockdown extensions, which make it harder to stay motivated and healthy and put more strain on those who live alone or have lost their social networks now that they are retired.

The pandemic

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows there has been a 26 per cent increase in alcohol sales since the Covid-19 pandemic hit our shores. Increased stress about job security, retirement safety nets and family relationships have led many Aussies to turn to the bottle to manage their stress, but it’s come at a cost.

“Fear of the unknown is a huge thing, and when we are in that state of constant fear, it causes so much anxiety and we know that alcohol helps with the initial feeling of anxiety, but it only exacerbates the anxiety afterwards,” Quick says.

And with lockdowns across the country putting a strain on marriages and family relationships, Quick says she’s seen an increase in clients dealing with divorce and family breakdowns.

“We’ve had a few empty nester students who, during Covid, have been pushed to realise they weren’t in a healthy relationship. It’s quite sad, but it did help them leave that relationship, and one of them has even gone on now to find their soulmate.”

Quitting booze for your health

We’ve heard all about the benefits of giving up alcohol, including weight loss and better health, but Quick says the biggest benefit she sees among her clients is the “massive improvement” in energy, sleep and overall health and vitality.

Quick says for older Aussies in particular, it’s the improvement in their quality of sleep that surprises them the most.

“A lot of the empty nester demographics are so used to having alcohol and using it as a sleep aid,” she says.

“And so they really feel like once they stop drinking they’re not going to be able to sleep but actually when we drink alcohol we’re not getting the required REM sleep, that really nourishing slow-wave sleep that we really need.

“While it helps us fall asleep because it’s anaesthetising us, we’re actually not getting that good quality sleep.”

Those who quit drinking also commonly experience an improvement in their mood and emotional wellbeing.

“When you drink, you numb the bad but you also numb the good and so what people will notice when they stop drinking is that they start feeling so much better, not just physically but also mentally on a holistic level,” she says.

“Alcohol exacerbates mental health conditions, so if there’s any kind of underlying anxiety or depression your drinking is just making it worse.”

How to get started

For those who do want to quit drinking, or at least cut back on their alcohol consumption, Quick suggests honing in on the reason you want to change your habits and using it as your motivation.

“Knowing your why is important,” she says. “It could be to have beautiful quality time with your grandkids, or just have the energy to live your life in the best possible way.

“Crafting a dream life is really important because it gives you the drive and passion to want to stay sober. Putting a bucket list and vision board in place, learning how to manifest, and this is something a lot of our empty nesters have loved because they think of manifestation as this wu-wu fluffy term but actually there’s research that backs up the process of manifesting the life that we want for ourself.

“Fear can hold so many people back from wanting to make this change, once you break that cycle life is so much better.”

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