Forget teenagers, the real problem drinkers in New Zealand are baby boomers, new research has found.
For many years the assumption has been that young people are our at-risk drinkers, and policies and campaigns to help reduce at-risk drinking behaviours have been aimed at under-25s.
But new research outlined in an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal shows that young people are reducing their alcohol consumption, and New Zealanders aged 50-plus are the nation's true at-risk drinkers. They are also the age group that is behind a predicted increase in alcohol consumption per capita in New Zealand over the next 10 years, says Massey University public health senior lecturer Dr Andy Towers, the lead author of the editorial.
Towers explains that despite a reduction since the 1990s, New Zealand's per capita alcohol consumption is expected to increase over the next decade and it's New Zealand's 50-plus population that is driving the trend. This contrasts with predicted declines in Australia and the United Kingdom, which have similar drinking cultures to ours.
He says that it's not that baby boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) are drinking more than they used to. Baby boomers typically drink at a lower level rate but frequently (i.e.four to five days per week; two to four drinks on each occasion).
The problem is that baby boomers are transitioning into 'older adulthood' and not reducing the amount they drink, so we are moving into an era where a greater number of older people are drinking.
Towers states, "Baby boomers are simply drinking more frequently and in greater quantity than previous generations of retirees."
"Quite a number are also binge drinking frequently as well - 13 per cent."
And older people are at greater risk from alcohol than younger people.
Towers explains, "Ageing increases the risk of alcohol-related harms as we are less capable of processing and diluting ethanol, so each drink is relatively more toxic to an older body.
"Second... there are no health benefits of moderate drinking for older adults specifically.
"Third, many older drinkers also use alcohol-interactive medication for chronic health conditions, so almost 20 per cent of older adults may be at a serious risk of medication-alcohol interaction."
Alcohol is still the drug of choice for baby boomers, and while there is legislation limiting alcohol availability for youth (purchase age restrictions, zero blood alcohol limits for learner drivers), there are fewer restrictions for middle-aged and older people.
Between surveys completed in 2006-07 and 2015-16, the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds classed as hazardous drinkers fell from 43.2 to 32.6 per cent. A change in methodology means results since 2015-16 can not be compared against the previous surveys.
Hazardous drinkers are classed as drinkers at risk of immediate harm from binge drinking - injury, black-outs, fighting - or drinkers who drink at lower levels over several years who develop cancer, heart disease or other alcohol-related chronic conditions.
Over the same 10-year time period, hazardous drinking increased in every age group between 25 and 74.
For 45 to 54-year-olds, the proportion of harmful drinkers increased from 12.2 to 18.5 per cent.
In an era of rapid population ageing, these statistics point to an "increasing need for health services (including addiction services)," Towers says.
"Our health system, particularly primary care, needs to adapt to this change."
A pilot project is underway in Whanganui which is designed to assess a system that may work "within the clinical context of long-term conditions management".
This research was conducted by researchers at Massey University, the University of Auckland and Health Solutions Trust, Whanganui
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