‘There are lots of studies about alcohol use in the general population, but we don’t often study it specifically amongst those over 65.
People think, “Oh, elderly people don’t drink that much”, but retirement is often an extremely traumatic time of life, especially for men. You might have people passing away, for example, increasing your likelihood of drinking. So it’s an important age group on which to conduct alcohol research.
My study focused specifically on alcohol use in elderly Australian men. I had a sample of 555 men aged 65 and over, and was asking: “Do non-drinkers or moderate drinkers have better health outcomes on certain measures than heavy drinkers?” I started off testing rates of depression in heavier drinkers and non-drinkers compared to moderate drinkers. I also looked at risk of falls and rates of obesity.
We also found slightly higher rates of past depression in non-drinkers…
I found there was a wide range of drinking in the elderly community. We saw people who were drinking one glass a day and others regularly consuming 10 drinks daily. For me, alcohol research is not about preaching in moralistic ways; it’s about increasing awareness of what alcohol does and the associated risks to physical and mental health.
One of my most important findings was about increased risk of obesity. There was a clear correlation between the amounts you drink and your weight. I don’t think our society is particularly aware of how fattening alcohol can be, so an important outcome from my study is improving awareness of that. Just like there’s nutritional information on food when you’re going down the grocery aisles—I’d love to see that on alcohol.
In terms of past depression, we found much higher rates in people who drink heavily. These results are useful from a primary health perspective. If GPs are aware of evidence of drinking as a marker for mental health they’re able to screen better during routine examination.
They can say, “I’ve got a heavy drinker in front of me. That’s associated with increased risk of depression. I’m going to ask more questions or see if they’d like a referral to a psychologist”.
We also found slightly higher rates of past depression in non-drinkers. Is this because people quit drinking because of mental health problems or is there something about being a lifetime abstainer from alcohol that leads to increased risk? We weren’t’t able at to look at that but there are lots of great studies that do.
You can’t create a health message based on one study. You need to know that study is consistent with others. I see my work as adding to the information that eventually all gets pulled together by government agencies to change policies. Research is all about everyone looking at different pieces of a puzzle. Mine was a very small piece and someone else is looking at another piece and together we improve our understanding of the world. That’s perhaps a bit idealistic but certainly how I view it.’
Carolyn Coulson’s research is titled: “A population-based study of alcohol use in elderly men: associations with physical and mental health”.
* “My PhD” is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.