Heavy drinking by Northern Ireland over-50s costs NHS £125m a year
Alcohol misuse among adults in Northern Ireland aged over 50 cost local healthcare services an estimated £125m in 2017-18, a new report has revealed.
The shocking figure comes after it emerged that there has been a 70% increase in alcohol-specific fatalities here since 2001, the biggest rise in the UK.
This hike is particularly stark for older people, with the largest number of deaths among those aged between 45 and 54, closely followed by those aged from 55 to 64.
A 2018 study by Public Health England found that every £1 invested in alcohol treatment services sees a social return of £3.
The new Queen's University Belfast report, commissioned by Drink Wise, Age Well, coincides with the publication of Calling Time For Change, a charter on how to reduce alcohol harm among people over 50.
The charter, co-designed by people and families affected by alcohol problems and experts from the Drink Wise, Age Well programme, contains recommendations for policy makers. One suggestion is a dedicated service in health and social care, which can respond to the needs of an ageing population with alcohol problems.
Others include enabling better collaboration and partnership among service providers, and more recognition of the importance of supporting people through events like retirement or bereavement, which often trigger alcohol misuse.
The study also outlines a need for greater support of community-based services to tackle loneliness and support recovery, and says the Government must address how a drinking culture is enabled by policy and legislation.
Queen's University's Professor Ciaran O'Neill said the report "highlights the significant burden to the health service of managing alcohol misuse-related morbidity". He added: "The issue of alcohol misuse has received increased attention in recent months, arising in part from the publication of mortality statistics showing a sharp rise in alcohol related deaths.
"Our estimate of £125m per year is conservative but serves to underscore the magnitude of the problem. The scale of the issue suggests there is a need to consider public health measures, such as the adoption of minimum unit pricing, and the provision of support services to those seeking to quit drinking."
A Drink Wise, Age Well service user said the organisation completely changed his life.
"I really felt that I needed the group support but I also found the one-to-one support very beneficial in my case," he said.
"I now have the confidence to go to events that have alcohol, and not drink and still enjoy the evening."
Adrian Loughrey of Drink Wise, Age Well said alcohol misuse here goes beyond financial cost.
"Older adults can make positive changes to their alcohol use and it is never too late for this to happen," he added.
"But we need to ensure services are designed in a way that feels welcoming to people over 50. At the moment we're only reaching a fraction of the people who could use some support."
Mr Loughrey said there are 170,000 local adults drinking at hazardous levels, and a further 47,000 drinking at harmful levels.
Hazardous refers to anything above the 'safe' weekly limit of 14 units for both males and females, while harmful is 35 units or above per week for women or 50 units for men.