The three As: Alcohol, ageing and addiction

We have a fascination with alcohol in this country.

On one side: New Zealand’s wine and craft beer are renowned around the world (contributing healthily to our economy as a result), a catchup with friends in the pub or at home over a drink is seen as the norm for most, whilst many of our major sporting and cultural events are sponsored by alcohol brands.  

On the other side: we have one of the highest rates of alcohol use in the world, a binge drinking culture that hasn’t moved far past the ‘six o’clock swill’ mentality of past decades, and alcohol is the second biggest contributing factor to road crashes in New Zealand[i]

It’s how we’re drinking

Associate Professor Andy Towers (co-leader of the Mental Health and Addiction Programme at Massey University) explored just how dangerous our obsession with alcohol can be as we get older at a recent Ageing and Addiction Symposium, organised by Age Concern Canterbury and Odyssey House Christchurch.

There were some sobering facts raised about our global alcohol use. Some of the most interesting points were:

  • New Zealand leads the world in terms of how much and how frequently we drink.
  • Alcohol is still the drug of choice for people over 65; yet as we get older, our bodies can’t process it in the same way.
  • Based on studies conducted in the US, alcohol-related hospitalisations have doubled (largely among baby-boomers).
  • 40% of older adults are considered ‘hazardous drinkers’.
  • A third of drinkers are lifelong hazardous drinkers (i.e., haven’t changed their drinking habits since they began drinking).
  • Many health issues and medications interact negatively with alcohol.

Getting to grips with the problem

As Towers puts it: “We don’t know much about older people in this space.” In fact, a big UK study found that services for older people aren’t fit for purpose. The research showed that many of the issues stopping older people getting adequate health care included: being written off as ‘too old’, not being referred or screened enough, not being prioritised over younger people, and arbitrary numbers put on age limits. Part of the problem, as Towers suggests, is that the people making the decisions about health services for older people are not talking to those at the coalface – the people who are providing and using those services.

A screening tool that was piloted last year in Whanganui – as part of the work Towers and his team at Massey have been doing – has looked to make some headway to remedy this issue. The tool prompts the clinician to screen for alcohol-related conditions and medication use (gout, hypertension, and mental health issues for example), and based on the results provides an opportunity to start a conversation about alcohol use that doesn’t blame the patient: ‘the screening tool suggests you may have an issue with alcohol use – let’s talk about that.’

Ban the bottle?

According to Towers, alcohol is a far more destructive drug than many of those classified as Class A and B drugs. “The data actually suggests that alcohol should be illegal, and cannabis, LSD and ecstasy should be legalised – it’s just that way alcohol is so interwoven in our society means that people would say ‘no, don’t take away my alcohol.’”

While there are obviously risk factors associated with taking any drug, Towers’ point here is that alcohol has become so intrinsically linked with our day-to-day life, it’s hard to look objectively at just how harmful it can be.

The flip side of that thinking can be seen in the results of the recent cannabis referendum; despite cannabis use almost doubling in the past decade (including medicinal use) and research suggesting that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol[ii], attitudes towards its use remain conservative. When it comes to alcohol and drugs, it seems our thinking remains set in its ways.

Next steps?

Most of us can enjoy alcohol without fear of major health or social issues. Even if you think your alcohol intake is at a healthy level, however, there’s no harm in taking a deeper look into your relationship with alcohol.

If you think you or someone you love has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, there are several places you can go to start the process of getting help:

Alcohol Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797

Māori line – 0800 787 798

Pasifika line – 0800 787 799.

Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency has produced a booklet about alcohol for older people and their families, friends and carers; download a PDF version or order a free hard copy

You can also find more information at and



Photo credit: Scott Van Hoy on Unsplash

About Mason Head

Mason Head
Content Creator and Publication Lead at Eldernet

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