Behind the Headlines Blog: So what’s really going on with the Baby Boomers?

01/02/2018

Public Health England relaunched their Act FAST campaign today (1 February 2018) [link] to urge people to call 999 if they notice even one of the signs of a stroke in themselves, or in others.

An important public health campaign widely reported online and on social media. So why did so many headlines focus on Baby Boomers’ alcohol consumption on the back of this campaign? Looking at PHE data (2013) alcohol is actually sixth on the list of risk factors for strokes behind smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol. But the average person might think that alcohol was the only risk factor involved – and that’s not the message that PHE were aiming to get across.

But it’s not the first time that ‘Baby Boomers’ and their alcohol consumption have hit the headlines…

In November 2017, the Office for National Statistics [ONS] released a new definition for alcohol-specific deaths to provide greater accuracy in the reporting of alcohol-related harm. The ONS reported that alcohol-specific deaths had remained relatively unchanged in recent years. But the accompanying headlines were more pessimistic; ‘Booze killing more & more old drinkers (Daily Mirror), ' 'Baby Boozers' deaths rocket (The Sun) ' Alcohol death rates soar among Baby Boomers’’ (The Mail Online). Anyone reading those stories would have been concerned about reports of “sky rocketing deaths” rates.

But the actual ONS data shows a different picture. Since alcohol-specific deaths peaked in 2008, there has been a downward trajectory in recent years. Just looking at the baby boomers (50-70 year olds), deaths in 2016 were either below or in line with 2008 figures.

Figure 1


Source: ONS

Whilst any rise in alcohol specific deaths is deeply concerning, commentators should be careful about citing phrases like ‘rocketing’ or ‘soaring’ to describe deaths rates that have remained relatively flat in recent years (see above).

And another example of baby boomers in the news last Summer when a British Medical Journal article discussed the rise of substance misuse in this age group. With no context given – ie the vast majority of adults drink sensibly and safely - once again the headlines were sensational: “rapid' rise of drink and drug abuse among the over-50s” (Daily Express), “Baby boomers 'are problem drinkers'' (Mail Online) “’Risky drinking' of liberal baby boomers behind rise in hospital admissions’ (The Telegraph).

So how does this stack up against official Office of National Statistics data? Looking at harmful drinking patterns* across the age groups (see Fig 2) we can see that in 2005, just under 8 in every 100 adults between 45 and 64 drank harmfully. By 2016, that was just over 8 in every 100, while in the over 65 age group, this rose from 1 person in 100 to 2 people in every 100. So while this is an increase in comparison to the seismic declines in harmful drinking in other age groups, in real terms it is still only a relatively small increase (see Fig 2) . The fact is that 92% of 45-64 year olds and 98% of people aged over 65 drink do not drink at harmful levels (12/9 units on their heaviest drinking day).

Figure 2


Source: ONS

And for the minority of those that drink harmfully, rather than labelling them as a ‘’rapidly rising problem’ or suggesting they are filling up the crematoriums at rocketing rates, a more positive solution is to work constructively with this age group to uncover the underlining issues. Drink Wise, Age Well works with people aged Over 50 and their families to create a healthier relationship with alcohol, addressing the issues that may trigger alcohol misuse such as retirement, bereavement, change in home situation, infrequent contact with family and friends, and social isolation.

To read more about Drink Wise Age Well work: Helping people make healthier choices about alcohol as they age visit their website here: https://drinkwiseagewell.org.uk/

Drinkaware also has a range of tips and advice https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/little-less/
 
*Harmful drinking is defined as ‘exceeding 12 units for men or 9 units for women on their heaviest drinking day in the last week, (12 units equates to 4 pints of beer at 5.2% ABV).