Affluent people age 50 and above may be endangering their health with excessive alcohol consumption, say British researchers, who are calling rising harmful drinking a "middle-class phenomenon."

Although wealthier people in middle age often give the impression of being health conscious, eating well and getting regular exercise, their level of alcohol consumption is likely much greater than their less successful age peers, they say.

The study by AGE UK, appearing in the British Medical Journal Open, is based on an analysis of data gathered as part of the English Longitudinal Survey of Aging (ELSA), a long-term study of men and women aged 50 and above living independently in England.

The takeaway finding, researchers point out, is that if you're 50 or older, well educated and active socially, there's a good chance you're drinking too much.

"Harmful drinking in later life is more prevalent among people who exhibit a lifestyle associated with affluence and with a 'successful' aging process," says study leader José Iparraguirre, AGE UK Chief Economist. "Harmful drinking may then be a hidden health and social problem in otherwise successful older people."

The researchers focused on "higher risk drinking," which, in the United Kingdom, is defined as more than 50 units of alcohol per week for men and more than 35 for women.

A small glass of wine or beer averages between two to three units, so high-risk drinking would equate to between 17 to 25 glasses weekly for men, 12 to 17 for women.

Why the most successful elements of the population are prone to heaver drinking is unclear, the researchers say; Iparraguirre suggests public health messages about the health dangers of drinking aren't getting through to this group.

"Our analysis challenges popular perceptions of who is drinking too much," he says. "It suggests public health messaging is not reaching high income groups who are most at risk."

Since the general overall health of this affluent group is better than other portions of the country's older population, they may not realize the danger to their health that high alcohol consumption represents, Iparraguirre says.

Their financial status may play into that, experts say.

"I tend to think affluent people have more entitlement issues" says psychologist Deborah Serani, "and as such, believe the public campaigns or health warnings don't apply to them. At all."

They may also not realize how much they are drinking because many of them do most of their drinking at home, researchers say.

They are urging health authorities creating public health information to consider age-specific drinking guidelines targeted at older people.

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