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08 Sep 2017

In both the UK and Australia, risky drinking is declining, except among people aged 50 years and older, new research has found.

Researchers at Flinders University and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in England, published their findings in the BMJ, inAugust this year.

The authors believe that Western countries are sitting on a time bomb of health and social issues arising from drug and alcohol overuse among baby boomers, including a worrying trend for episodic heavy drinking in this age group.

“Alcohol is the most common substance of misuse among baby boomers which presents the most concern because of the larger number of users and wide range of negative consequences,” said Professor Ann Roche, Director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University.

The research also found that this generational trend is not restricted to alcohol.

“Some of the pharmaceutical drugs such as opioids also have severe consequences associated with their use,” Professor Roche said.

In Australia, the largest percentage increase in drug misuse between 2013 and 2016 was among people aged 60 and over, with this age group mainly misusing prescription drugs.

However, people over 50 also have higher rates than younger age groups for both past year and lifetime illicit drug misuse (notably cannabis).

The authors are keen to highlight that this older age group’s alcohol and drug use presents specific issues that are not common in younger demographics.

“Ageing reduces the body’s capacity to metabolise, distribute and excrete alcohol and drugs, and older people are also more likely to have pre-existing physical or psychological conditions or take medicines that may negatively interact with alcohol and drugs,” Prof Roche said.

“There is also a reduction in lean body mass, resulting in higher alcohol-drug blood concentrations,” she said.

The authors of the research are calling for a coordinated international approach to manage this rapidly growing problem, including treatment programs adapted for older people with substance misuse rather than those aimed at all age groups.

“There remains an urgent need for better drug treatments for older people with substance misuse, more widespread training, and above all a stronger evidence base for both prevention and treatment,” they state in the BMJ editorial.

Dr Rao and Professor Roche said the growing influence of baby boomer substance misuse will continue to present challenges for healthcare service delivery for older people.

The study also notes that it is an additional concern the increasing proportion of women drinking in later life, particularly those whose alcohol consumption is triggered by life events such as retirement, bereavement, a change in home situation, infrequent contact with family and friends, and social isolation.

The AMA questioned the priorities of the recently released National Drug Strategy 2017-2026, noting whilst alcohol in Australia is associated with 5,000 deaths and more than 150,000 hospitalisations each year, the Strategy puts it as a lower priority than ice.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said he believes support and treatment services are severely under-resourced, even though the costs of untreated dependence and addictions are staggering. Alcohol-related harm alone is estimated to cost $36 billion a year.

The broader community impacts of those affected by dependence and addictions are more likely to have physical and mental health concerns, and their finances, careers, education, and personal relationships can be severely disrupted, Dr Gannon said.

The AMA’s Harmful Substance Use, Dependence, and Behavioural Addiction (Addiction) 2017 Position Statement can be read at


Published: 08 Sep 2017