How do you know when alcohol could be affecting your health?

A new study shows worrying levels of drinking among older Australians. Here’s how to know if drinking is affecting your health.

Rachel Smith
August 2017

Booze. In Australia, we see it on billboards, TV commercials, greeting cards. Social occasions often revolve around it too, so it’s no real surprise that our drinking habits as a nation are problematic, or that we’re reluctant to seek help if we drink at risky levels.

A new survey from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has experts debating Australia’s drinking culture – and whether the government is doing enough to raise awareness about the dangers of excessive drinking.

Dangerous drinking habits

Binge drinking

There are two main drinking habits of concern – one is commonly known as binge drinking, meaning excessive drinking on one occasion. Because alcohol affects everyone differently this is difficult to quantify but the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines advise no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion to avoid injury.

A standard drink is 10 grams of alcohol, and that may be smaller than you think – for example, a 150ml glass of red wine is actually about 1.6 standard drinks. For more examples, see DrinkWise’s Standard Drinks Calculator.

Worryingly, the AIHW study shows that the proportion of people in their 50s and 60s consuming 11 or more standard drinks in one sitting is rising.

Long-term drinking

Long-term drinking habits are also problematic for our health. And when that is taken into account, the NHMRC guidelines advise that for both men and women “drinking no more than 2 standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury”.

Dr Nadine Ezard, clinical director at the drug and alcohol service at St Vincent’s Hospital, says this cumulative effect of drinking too much over many years is a huge concern for health professionals.

“If you start in your 20s, by the time you’re in your 50s you may have gradually increased the amount you consume – and be settled into a pattern where you habitually have a bottle of wine a night. I’ve seen people in their 50s who need placement in nursing homes because their mental capacity is impaired from too much alcohol over too many years. These things are preventable if we get in early.”

Long-term drinking can also increase your risk factors for cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, Dr Ezard adds.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning sees the knock-on effects of alcohol issues among families and couples, regardless of age – and says too many people are using it to self-medicate. “It’s a huge problem among the adults I see; it can really destroy relationships. People tend to avoid seeking help for their stress and emotional issues, but if they did I think they would turn to alcohol less often.”

When to seek help

The more you drink, the greater your risk of alcohol-related accidents and health problems. But how do you know if your drinking is a problem and it’s time to get help? Alcohol awareness organisation DrinkWise says:

  • Can you control when you start or stop drinking?
  • Do you have difficulties controlling how much you drink?
  • Do you suffer nausea, vomiting and headaches after drinking?
  • Are you verbally or physically abusive?
  • Are you unable to meet family, personal, work commitments after drinking?
  • Do you suffer legal or financial problems as a result of your drinking?

Getting on top of risky drinking

If you or those around you are concerned about your drinking, there are various options for getting help and Manning suggests the first step is talking to your GP.

“Listen to the advice – even if that means seeking help for lifestyle issues or joining Alcoholics Anonymous,” she says.

There are lots of treatments to help too, from medications to counselling and moderation therapy.

“It’s not just about rehab; there are many things we can do,” says Dr Ezard. “However, there’s a 20-year delay from when people first start having a drinking problem to actually seeking treatment, and we could be doing a lot to encourage people to come forward and reduce the stigma around seeking help.”

If you’re uncomfortable raising the issue with your GP, you can also contact the alcohol and drug information helpline in your state.

Dealing with triggers

Other practical steps include addressing why you drink in the first place – whether it’s because you’re stressed or in social situations.

When you’re stressed or emotional, avoid reaching for a drink as alcohol can actually increase stress and anxiety. Find other ways to relieve stress, such as going for a walk or doing something creative, or calling a friend.

And when catching up with friends in person, avoid meeting where there’s alcohol, says Dr Ezard.

“Get into the habit of suggesting other social alternatives to friends – such as a game of golf or a movie instead.”

The alcohol-use habits revealed in the AIHW study reveal that it’s time to change our drinking culture. Dr Ezard says a good circuit breaker can be when GPs talk to patients about their drinking; it can motivate people to make changes.

“I think we also need to be doing more, especially around advertising – it’s everywhere. We were leaders in addressing cigarette smoking [and the promotion of it] in Australia, and we should be doing similar things with alcohol.”


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