Over-drinking, smoking and lack of exercise causing problems for over-50s, study finds

Six-year study in Northern Ireland plans to draw up a strategy on more active ageing

High levels of over-drinking, smoking and a lack of exercise have been pinpointed as problems among the over-50s in the first major study of ageing in Northern Ireland.

With the over-50s expected to make up more than half of the population in the next 30 years, the result of the six-year study is going towards drawing up a strategy to encourage more active ageing.

Led by the Centre for Public Health at Queen's University, the NICOLA project — Northern Ireland Cohort for the Longitudinal Study of Ageing — has been focusing on a sample of 8,300 men and women aged 50 or more for the last six years.

A second phase of the study, called Wave 2, is already underway with plans in place in preparation for a third phase which, the NICOLA team says, will “change the way people live for the better.”


Regular consumption

The results of Wave 1, however, included that just under two-thirds of participants (61 per cent) admitted regular consumption of alcohol, with almost a third (31 per cent) taking more than the recommended 14 units per week.

Nearly one in five (17 per cent) are smokers, while just over half (57 per cent) reported that they take the recommended 150 minutes or more of exercise every week.

One in four of the participants live on their own, which increased with age, and being on their own was three times more common in urban areas than rural areas — although almost all (98 per cent) said they would have a source of help if they are ill.

The section of the population aged 50 or over is the most rapidly growing group in the province; on average people are living longer and retiring earlier.

But almost a quarter (22 per cent) belong to what has been referred to as the “sandwich generation” — people who still have at least one living parent, as well as one child or more.

Outpatient clinics

A large majority reported having visited their GP at least once in the last year, with almost half (46 per cent) visiting hospital outpatient clinics.

Married or cohabiting couples reported better physical and mental health than those on their own, while generally those in the most rural areas reported slightly better health than those in more populated areas.

The next phase is including issues such as the nature and timing, and financial provision, for retirement and the design and quality of health services.

"Overall, these initial results will become even richer when we follow up the cohort to find out about the life experiences our participants have had over the coming years," Professor Frank Kee, of QUB, said.

“It is this unfolding of their lives, over time, which will vastly strengthen the power and policy relevance of this important resource.”