Alcohol-related hospital admissions in England have increased by 64% in a decade and are at their highest ever level, prompting experts to warn that baby boomers are continuing to risk their health through frequent and excessive drinking.
There were an estimated 1.1m admissions where alcohol was the primary or secondary issue in 2015/16, compared with 670,000 in 2005/06, according to NHS Digital data published on Wednesday.
Separate data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for England shows people aged 45 and over are frequently drinking at more hazardous levels.
Married and cohabiting couples are more likely than single people to consume alcohol on five or more days a week, though they are slightly less likely to binge drink.
Surveys found 60% of women aged 45 to 64 and 69% of men of the same age had drunk alcohol in the last week – the highest proportions of any age group.
Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, a liver doctor and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said the figures proved the UK continued to have a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol.
He said: “We know that over the long term, rates of binge drinking are falling and more people are choosing to abstain from alcohol. Worryingly, however, these trends do not appear big enough to stop alcohol harm from continuing to rise, and the sharp increase in alcohol-related hospital admissions over the last few years means hundreds of thousands more people each year are experiencing the misery associated with harmful alcohol consumption.”
Dr Tony Rao, co-chair of the Older People’s Substance Misuse working group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “These figures show that alcohol abuse is not a ‘young person problem’. While the rest of the population reduces its alcohol intake, it is very concerning that baby boomers are drinking at a similar rate as before and are exceeding recommended guidelines.”
The ONS data also shows that the proportion of adults who say they drink alcohol is at the lowest level for more than a decade.
The trend has been largely driven by an increase in the proportion of younger people abstaining, but there has been no decline in the proportion of over-65s drinking, and they are the age group most likely to have consumed alcohol on five or more occasions in the week before they were interviewed.
Such regular drinking is more than three time more likely among over-65s than in the 16-24 age group, the data shows.
Alcohol is linked to more than 60 illnesses and diseases including heart disease, liver disease, cancer and dementia. Hospital admissions due to liver disease have gone up 57% over the last decade, and the number of people diagnosed with alcohol-related cancer has risen by 8%, according to the AHA. The World Cancer Research Fund has said that if nobody drank alcohol in the UK, 21,000 cases of cancer could be prevented each year, including nearly 12,000 cases of breast cancer.
NHS Digital cautions that a narrower measure of alcohol-related hospital admissions is more reliable for tracking changes over time than the broad measure – which the 1.1 million figure relates to – because it is less affected by improvements in recording of secondary diagnoses. But even under the narrow measure, hospital admissions have risen by 22% since 2005/06, to 339,000.
The ONS data shows that 7.8 million people admit to binge drinking – defined for men as consuming more than eight units and for women more than six units – on their heaviest drinking day.
Men are more likely to drink than women and to binge drink. Higher earners, on £40,000 and above annually, are more likely to be frequent drinkers and to binge drink than the lowest earners.
Gilmore said: “The data released today should be sobering reading for whoever wins the upcoming general election, and we would urge the next government to make tackling alcohol harm an immediate priority to save lives, reduce harm, and reduce the pressure on the NHS.”
The Alcohol Information Partnership, which is funded by global drinks companies, said binge drinking and harmful drinking had declined by 17% and 23% respectively since 2005.