How does the UK Compare to Europe in alcohol use?

It probably comes as no surprise that where you live, or where you are from, has a role to play in how much alcohol you drink. Most people today believe that the Northern European countries, such as the UK and Ireland, are the ‘worst’ drinkers in Europe; that we are prone to drinking to excess and bingeing. This is in contrast with the opinion that alcohol consumption in Southern Europe is much more moderate. However, it was not too long ago, in fact, that this view was inverted, with us Northern Europeans being considered as the more moderate drinkers.

If we compare today to the 1970s, there has been between a three and five fold increase in the amount of liver-related deaths in the UK whereas in Southern European countries such as Italy and France, this figure has decreased by three to five times. You can see that these changes have crossed over and gone in opposite directions. This shows us that our nations’ drinking cultures are not static but can change over time.

Changes in Southern Europe compared with changes in the UK

European drinking culture

So where has this change come from in Southern European countries? The belief about Southern Europe is that these countries often have the culture of having a little drink frequently as a part of everyday life. The changes have come about due to a wider societal change, with increased urbanisation and the subsequent changes in people’s working conditions. There’s also an increased awareness of drinking alcohol and health too.

In contrast, the Northern European countries, including the UK, have moved towards higher alcohol consumption and therefore an increase in alcohol-related harm, which has been explained by the increase in affordability and availability of alcohol. We’ve combined this with the culture of more episodic drinking associated with celebrations and weekends rather than the Southern Europeans who used to drink regularly but only in smaller quantities.

It’s evident that drinking to excess and bingeing is more harmful than the frequent, lighter drinking in the south and this readily explains why the northern countries, including the UK, have had such an increase in alcohol-related illnesses and deaths.

Comparing the UK with the Southern European countries in this way shows us that societal changes across Europe affect each country differently in terms of how much alcohol is consumed and it proves that there is not a direct link between drinking and an improvement in living and working conditions. It is, in fact, indirect, affected by the individual country’s cultural and historical background.

Underage Drinking Across Europe

A recent survey has shown that British children between the ages of 11 and 15 are more likely to have drunk alcohol on a weekly basis compared to the average taken of 36 countries in Europe. There’s also a higher percentage of 15-year-olds in England who first got drunk at 13 years old or before. This puts the UK in the top ten countries in Europe for early drunkenness.

Other surveys have also shown that there is an underage drinking problem in the UK compared with 36 other European countries. In fact, over half of 15-16 Brits said that they have been drunk on at least one occasion, with girls slightly more than boys. The only other countries to ‘beat’ us to the top of this underage-drinking table were Slovakia, Finland and Denmark.

Countries Similar to the UK in their Alcohol Consumption

We are by no means alone in our consumption of alcohol. While most of the Southern European countries drink less, we are actually similar drinkers to some of the Eastern European countries including Poland, Latvia, Slovakia and Hungary. Lithuania, Romania and the Czech Republic were at the top of the table, having approximately 3.2 drinks per day in Lithuania, with 2.4 drinks daily the other two countries mentioned. At the bottom of the list are Italy and Malta, whose inhabitants drink on average 1.3 drinks each day.

The Future

So, what now? The UK needs to drastically up its game in reducing the amount of alcohol we consume. Our current consumption levels are some of the most worrying in Europe meaning we have an awful lot of people who are greatly at risk of developing many related conditions and diseases. Let’s not forget that alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen! To change our habits may require cultural and societal changes and that is not going to happen overnight.

Alcoholism in the over 65’s – A New Worrying Trend

Alcoholism or alcohol abuse is something that’s most often associated with younger or perhaps middle-aged adults. In fact, alcoholism amongst the older generations is something that is quite often hidden or even overlooked. One of the reasons for this is because, as we get older, we naturally become less social and a lot of older people’s social circles are naturally declining. Furthermore, doctors may miss the signs of alcoholism in the elderly as they are often similar to some of the natural signs of aging, such as trouble sleeping, depression or memory difficulties.

The Extent of Alcoholism in the Over 65s

Research has shown that 6-11% of elderly people that are admitted to hospital showed signs of alcoholism, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. This figure increases to 20% when talking about admissions to psychiatric units.

Early-onset and Late-onset Alcoholism

Essentially, there are two categories of alcoholism in the over 65s: those who have what’s called “early-onset alcoholism” and those who have “late-onset alcoholism”.

Early-onset alcoholism describes people who have a pattern of alcoholism that began when they were much younger or that they have had for most of their adult life. These people more often than not have poor relationships with their family and may have family members who have been prone to alcohol abuse. Furthermore, this category have often suffered some sort of socioeconomic decline. Of all elderly people who suffer from alcoholism, three quarters of them belong in this category, according to the experts.

Those who fall into the late-onset alcoholism category begin drinking much later in their lives. Their relationship with alcohol usually starts in their 40s or 50s. A lot of this group fall into the highly educated groups and have gained a higher than average socioeconomic status. Most of these people suffer alcoholism due to experiencing a traumatic event or from having a difficult time. It is the later-onset alcoholism that has been deemed a ‘worrying trend’

The Effects of Retirement

Many people look forward to the day they retire. It’s one of life’s major events as far as a person is concerned. They give up their work, which for some is a big part of their identity. Quite often, retirement is a hard transition for the over 65s. This takes its toll and is often a causal factor in late-onset alcoholism. The older generations can suddenly experience feelings of loneliness or boredom and can even feel like their life lacks meaning or purpose. Such negative feelings often add to and exacerbate alcohol consumption.


Elderly alcoholic

Getting older has many downsides and one of these is losing those that we love. Of course, death and dying can occur at any age but by the time we reach our mid-sixties we are often saying goodbye to lifelong friends, very elderly parents (if we haven’t already) and possibly even a spouse. These bereavements can all add to the likelihood of someone becoming dependent on alcohol later in life. Alcohol is a known for its numbing properties. It helps relieve pain, to calm down our emotions and even allows people to experience a sense of happiness, albeit in the short term. In this way, the elderly (like the rest of us) try to forget about their sadness and their troubles, trying to numb the pain that they are suffering.

What to look for if you Suspect an Older Person is suffering from Alcoholism

The elderly are no less prone to lying about their alcohol consumption than the rest of the population so sometimes it’s wise to look for signs in your loved ones that their relationship with alcohol has perhaps become problematic. The signs and symptoms of alcoholism are not that different in an elderly person than they are in any adult. However, age can often make some symptoms more pronounced, such as them having more gaps in their memory.

Elderly people often bruise more easily than younger people so watch out for unexplained bruises. They might become more confused or suffer from anxiety or depression and begin to neglect their diet, pets and appearance. Likewise, household chores and paying bills may become less of a priority. Sometimes, these symptoms are confused for those generally associated with old age so it’s easier to miss.

With increasing age, alcohol can have even greater effects and drinking it can do even more damage than it does for younger people due to the diminished ratio of water in the body compared with body fat. Therefore it is all the more important to look further if you do suspect that someone you know is suffering from alcoholism in older age.