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06 May 2021

New study explores influence of COVID-19 lockdown on risky alcohol consumption in older people

Findings showed a significant association between lockdown and dependent drinking in people aged between 55 and 74, as well as individual measures of harm and dependence.

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Researchers from King’s College London and the South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust have examined changes in alcohol use and misuse during the COVID-19 pandemic before and after lockdown for older people referred to mental health services.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Substance Use, is the first of its kind to explore how lockdown has impacted on drinking behaviour in older people referred to mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to before lockdown, the study found it was more likely for older people referred after lockdown to be female. They showed features of alcohol-related harm such as morning drinking and feeling guilt or remorse over their drinking. Patients were also more likely to drink at levels that indicated dependent drinking after lockdown.

The finding that older people were more likely to report risky drinking patterns after lockdown is all the more worrying as it comes at a time when cuts to alcohol services are occurring across the UK. These services need to be equipped to reduce alcohol-related harm in this age group, and at the moment, we are a long way from achieving that goal

Dr Rahul Rao, study lead and Visiting Researcher, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience

Older people aged between 55 and 74 represent a cohort with the largest rise in substance use and misuse over the past 15 years. There has been little previous research within mental health services exploring changes in drinking behaviour among older people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study used the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) to identify risky drinking in people aged between 55 and 74, in a sample of 366 people. One hundred and eighty-five people were referred before and one hundred and eighty-one people after lockdown in the UK.

Within the sample, there were no significant differences in mean age, ethnicity or living arrangements for numbers of patients screened with the AUDIT before and after lockdown. However, females were over-represented after lockdown. The study suggests that it is possible that more females than males drank alcohol in response to the psychosocial impact of alcohol. Overall, research has shown women are generally more likely to drink to regulate negative effects and stress associated with lockdown.

In general, these findings have implications for both access to services and service provision in older people who experience restrictions on their independence during a pandemic. The higher likelihood of drinking in women during lockdown has particular implications for specialist service provision and special considerations for older female drinkers with regard to treatment and recovery.

Rahul Rao, Christoph Mueller & Matthew Broadbent (2021) Risky alcohol consumption in older people before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom, Journal of Substance Use, DOI: 10.1080/14659891.2021.1916851

For further information please contact Patrick O’Brien, Senior Media Officer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London