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Research Summary

Risky Drinking Cut-offs for the Elderly Are Not Clear

Researchers in this retrospective study assessed drinking patterns and their health impact among elderly primary care patients. They analyzed data from 24,863 ethnically diverse patients, aged 65 to 103 years, from 6 VA medical centers, 2 hospital-based health care networks, and 3 community health centers.

  • Most subjects (70%) abstained in the past year; 22% drank moderately (1–7 drinks per week), 4% drank risky amounts (8–14 drinks per week), and 5% drank heavily (>14 drinks per week) or reported heavy drinking episodes (≥4 drinks in 1 day).
  • Depression or anxiety symptoms were significantly more common among abstainers (odds ratios in adjusted analyses [ORs], 1.4), heavy drinkers (OR, 1.8), and heavy drinkers with heavy drinking episodes (OR, 1.7) than among moderate drinkers.
  • Poor social support was significantly more common among abstainers (OR, 1.5) and heavy drinkers (OR, 2.0) than among moderate drinkers, while fair/poor health was reported more frequently by abstainers (OR, 1.8) and heavy drinkers with heavy drinking episodes (OR, 1.3).
  • Risky drinkers and moderate drinkers did not significantly differ on the 3 outcomes measured.


While these findings support those of a recent study that indicated similar disability and mortality outcomes in elders who drank ≤1 or ≤2 drinks per day, they conflict with others (e.g., a 10-year prospective study). The present study did not examine medical outcomes or mortality. Also, it grouped ex-drinkers with abstainers, which makes the poorer outcomes in “nondrinkers” not surprising but does not affect the main comparisons between moderate and risky drinkers. Further research is needed to clarify risky drinking cut-offs in the elderly.

R. Curtis Ellison, MD


Kirchner JE, Zubritsky C, Cody M, et al. Alcohol consumption among older adults in primary care. J Gen Intern Med. 2007;22(1):92–97.