The drink-drive generation

July 20, 2001

A report suggests that the baby-boomers might have trouble growing old gracefully. Olga Wojtas reports.

Europe is facing dramatic social and economic changes as the population ages. The World Health Organisation says years have been added to life and the test now is to add life to years. The widespread view is that problems will be minimised as 40 and 50-somethings grow into old age, because their high standard of living will ensure that they are the "healthy old".

But psychologist Mary Gilhooly, director of Paisley University's Centre of Gerontology and Health Studies, is not so sure. Funding for research on ageing focuses on existing problems among the elderly, she says, and until the baby-boomers are researched, predictions are of questionable value. "It is understandable that if resources are limited, you focus on current rather than future problems. But a stitch in time might be in order."

Gilhooly adds that, due to the funding difficulties, Paisley is "squishing [baby-boomers] on to the ends" of its research projects. This includes a study of alcohol consumption. One study suggests that some 15 per cent of elderly social-work clients might have alcohol-related problems - but this could be an underestimate.

The Paisley team has found many older people insisting they do not drink, although they regularly take a "medicinal" sherry or whisky at night to help them sleep. Gilhooly warns that a regular nightcap can destroy sleep patterns and encourage a larger alcohol intake.

However, figures show alcohol consumption tailing off as people get older, although it is not clear why. The Paisley team's investigation of elderly alcohol intake includes people as young as 50. Gilhooly decided this was essential after observing a high school-reunion of people in their early 50s in her native Oregon.

"It dawned on me that people were drinking an awful lot, but I never saw anyone drunk, even remotely drunk," she says. "It made me think that if you can drink for five hours and not appear drunk, you must do this fairly regularly. I think the baby-boomers are relatively heavy drinkers compared with previous generations. Alcohol is so much part of our social life, but we don't know what its impact will be. As people get older, they are often on medication. Livers can only clear away so many toxins."

The study is also investigating whether community nurses find it hard to give advice on alcohol to older people for fear of appearing impertinent or of depriving them of a rare pleasure. "But someone of 80 drinking way too much might fall downstairs and break their hip, leading to institutionalisation or premature death," Gilhooly says.

Another area of her research that embraces the baby-boomer generation is public transport. "They are used to the freedom that comes from car ownership," she says.

As part of the Economic and Social Research Council's "Growing Older" project, people are being asked at what age they feel prepared to give up driving. "They just sit there, and some say, 'I don't want to think about it.' There is denial."

Older people are also reluctant to ask their children for lifts, even after they have been babysitting the grandchildren. "It is as if older people feel they have a fixed number of chips and can only use them in an emergency. It is all right to ask your daughter to take you to the doctor or the hospital, but not to ask her to take you shopping or to meet friends."

Reliance on family help is also likely to be affected by the increasing complexity of family relationships, Gilhooly says. "It might be your third daughter-in-law and you would not have had the opportunity of building up a 30-year relationship with her."

Gilhooly's research team is drawing on data from the 1970s Midspan study, based in the Paisley-Renfrew area, which collected information on issues such as smoking, weight and blood pressure from more than 15,000 men and women aged between 45 and 64. A proportion of the 7,000 survivors has remained healthy despite living in a relatively deprived area.

Initial findings suggest this is linked to some sort of career progression. "It is difficult to disentangle in terms of cause and effect. Did they progress because they were healthy, or stay healthy because of progression?" Gilhooly asks. She speculates that the sense of moving forward might have minimised stress and its adverse effects on the body. In another project under the ESRC programme, the researchers will test 240 Midspan survivors to ascertain whether mental stimulation can keep them young.

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