March 17, 2020

Alcohol and other drug use among older Australians

Older couple in love

A recent report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has highlighted the use of alcohol and other drugs among older Australians.

As Australia’s population ages, and the proportion of people that are 50 or older increases over time, there needs to be a greater focus on preventing the harms among this group as a result of alcohol and other drug use.

We look at how alcohol and other drug use has changed over time among this population group, considering alcohol, pharmaceutical and illicit drug use.

Alcohol use

Alcohol use among older Australians poses significant risks to their health.1, 2

A recent AIHW report has found that in 2016, people aged 50 years or older drink more regularly than Australians in other age groups.1

While younger people are more likely to drink heavily on a single occasion (11 or more standard drinks), older Australians are more likely to drink daily if aged 70 years or older.

However, it was also found that among 60-69-year-old Australians, there has been a significant decline in daily drinking since 2013, from 12.3% of people to 10.2%.1

Alcohol consumption comes with specific risks for older Australians, and is causally linked to over 60 different disease conditions, many of which are common in older age.2 This may include conditions like cardiovascular disease, dementia and various cancers.2

It is also common for physiological tolerance for alcohol to decrease with age – so people may think they can drink the same amount, but will feel the effects sooner.2

Some research suggests that older Australians have a perception that their drinking habits are safer than they actually are.2, 3 A few studies have found that older Australians perceive themselves to be responsible drinkers, when in reality they are consuming more alcohol than the amount recommended in the ‘Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol’.

This suggests that older Australians are less likely to recognise or identify when their drinking is risky or harmful and might be less likely to seek help.2, 3

Pharmaceutical drug use

One of the key potential harms that older Australians may experience is the use of different pharmaceutical products at the same time, and potentially in combination with alcohol or illicit drugs.

The AIHW reported that non-prescribed use of pharmaceutical products was relatively common among older Australians.1

This is where an individual takes particular pharmaceutical drugs without a script. For example, they might use a prescribed painkiller given to them by a family member or friend.

The AIHW also found that males aged between 45 and 64 were more likely to experience a drug-induced death involving pharmaceutical drugs1 while males aged 55 or older were more likely to have opioids present in their system in toxicology reports.1 Australian females were more likely to have benzodiazepines (such as sleeping tablets and anxiety medications) in their system in drug-induced deaths, from the ages of 20 to mid-60s.1

Overall, research indicates that among older Australians there has been an increase in poly-pharmaceutical drug use by 9% between 2006-2017.4 This means that there is a larger proportion of Australians taking multiple prescription medications at one time than there has been in the past.4

Illicit drug use

The most commonly used illicit drug among older Australians is cannabis, followed by illicitly used pharmaceutical drugs.1

There has been an increase in the number of older Australians who are using illicit drugs.1 This does not mean that older Australians are starting to use illicit drugs for the first time, it is more likely that people who have previously used certain illegal drugs are continuing to do so as they are aging .1, 5

For example, between 2001 and 2016, the number of males who reported recently using illicit drugs nearly doubled among males in their 50s, and males aged 60 years or older.1

Preventing AOD harms among older Australians

To prevent the harms associated with alcohol and other drug use among older Australians, research has identified that better information sources are needed.3

Although older Australians may be aware of drinking guidelines, there may be opportunities to better communicate the overall risks of alcohol and drug use among this growing population. This may include information about the risks associated with the use of multiple prescription medications, particularly if used at the same time as alcohol.

An example of harm reduction work in this area is the introduction of systems such as SafeScript (a Real-Time Prescription Monitoring system), which helps prescribers identify medications that a person may already be taking. This assists health practitioners, such as doctors and pharmacists, to reduce over-prescribing and can prompt a discussion about the risks of using multiple drug types at once.

Help and further information

To talk to someone about alcohol or drugs, get in touch at DrugInfo 1300 85 85 84 or druginfo@adf.org.au

Further information about different drugs, including alcohol, prescription medications, cannabis and more, go to Drug Facts.

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  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2020.
  2. Bareham BK, Kaner E, Spencer LP, Hanratty B. Drinking in later life: a systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative studies exploring older people’s perceptions and experiences. Age and Ageing. 2019;48(1):134-46.
  3. Chapman J, Harrison N, Kostadinov V, Skinner N, Roche A. Older Australians' perceptions of alcohol‐related harms and low‐risk alcohol guidelines. Drug and Alcohol Review. 2020;39(1):44-54.
  4. Page AT, Falster MO, Litchfield M, Pearson SA, Etherton‐Beer C. Polypharmacy among older Australians, 2006–2017: a population‐based study. Medical Journal of Australia. 2019;211(2):71-5.
  5. Nicholas R, Roche AM. Why the growing use of alcohol and other drugs among older Australians needs attention 2014 [cited 2020 March 5, ].

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