Substance misuse among the over-50s is a “rapidly growing problem”, experts have warned.
They said risky drinking is in decline, except among those aged 50 and over, and added clinicians will need extra skills to cope with baby boomers who misuse prescription drugs and cannabis.
Rahul Rao, visiting researcher at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, and Ann Roche, director of the National Centre for Training and Addiction at Flinders University in Australia, said there is a “strong upward trend for episodic heavy drinking” among people aged 50 and over.
One particular worry is the “increasing proportion” of women drinking in later life prompted by retirement, bereavement, change in home situation, infrequent contact with family and friends, and social isolation.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, the experts said drinking is the most common substance misuse and the under-detection of alcohol problems is of “immediate concern”.
“Alcohol misuse in the older population may increase further as baby boomers get older because of their more liberal views towards, and higher use of, alcohol,” they wrote.
“A lack of sound alcohol screening to detect risky drinking may result in a greater need for treatment, longer duration of treatment, heavier use of ambulance services, and higher rates of hospital admission.”
However, this “generational trend” is not just restricted to alcohol, they added.
They wrote: “Clinicians will need improved knowledge and skills in assessing and treating older people at risk of misuse of opiate prescription drugs, cannabis, and, increasingly, gabapentinoid drugs used to treat neuropathic pain and anxiety.”
They concluded: “The clinical complexity of older adults with substance misuse demands new solutions to a rapidly growing problem.
“So far, there has been little sign of a co-ordinated international approach to integrated care.”
Commenting on the article, Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “The worrying rise in alcohol problems amongst baby boomers comes as no surprise.
“This is the first generation in living memory that has had easy access to cheap alcohol in shops and supermarkets and now we are seeing the consequences in later life.
“Drinking, especially at home, has become a normal daily habit for this age group. This, however, is linked to many common health conditions such as cancer and heart disease and increased risk of alcohol dependency.
“We need to take stock of this situation and prevent future generations from developing alcohol problems in older age through price increases and stricter controls on alcohol promotions.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: “When it comes to alcohol, much has been made in recent years of the decline in levels of youth drinking, which is positive, but not enough attention has been paid to the increasing numbers of older people experiencing problems with alcohol.
“We need to ensure all healthcare professionals are trained to spot the signs of alcohol problems among older people and to treat them, especially as this group is more likely to have more complex health needs.
“We also need to ensure alcohol treatment services are sufficiently funded to support those in need.
“The over 50s have seen a time when alcohol has become increasingly affordable and have been bombarded with sophisticated alcohol marketing messages telling them they can’t live a fulfilling life unless alcohol is at the centre of it.
“What they haven’t been told is that alcohol is linked to over 200 types of illness and injury, including 7 types of cancer.
“If we are to turn the tide of alcohol harm we need measures which tackle the affordability, availability and promotion of alcohol, starting with the introduction of a minimum unit price which would reduce rates of death, illness and hospital admission numbers caused by alcohol.”