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Research Summary

How Much Can Older People Safely Drink?

Safer drinking recommendations for older people are debated and vary from country to country (e.g., <1 drink per day in the United States but <2 drinks per day in England). Researchers addressed this debate by examining data on alcohol use and functional and cognitive disabilities from U.S. and English longitudinal studies including a total of 13,333 people aged 65 years and older. Mortality-related outcomes were also assessed in the U.S. subset. Analyses were adjusted for potential confounders.

  • Thirty-two percent of English men, 12% of English women and U.S. men, and 3% of U.S. women drank >1 drink per day.
  • At the 4- to 5-year follow-up, subjects who drank at baseline >1 to 2 drinks per day, compared with those who drank >0 to 1 drinks per day, had
    • a borderline-significant lower risk of cognitive problems* and difficulties with instrumental activities of daily living** (odds ratios, 0.8 for both);
     
    • similiar risks of mortality (unadjusted analyses) and combined mortality-disability outcomes.

Comments:

In this study, older people who drank >1 to 2 drinks per day did not develop greater functional or cognitive disabilities than those who drank the U.S. recommended level of <1 drink per day. The researchers are to be commended for focusing on functional and cognitive outcomes. However, drinking’s effect on mortality is unclear in this study because adjusted analyses with mortality as the sole outcome were not reported. The safer drinking limit for older people will most likely remain debated until more evidence is available.

Kevin L. Kraemer, MD, MSc
*Bottom quintile of cognitive function, based on scores on tests that assessed word recall, numeracy, and the ability to correctly specify the date
**Difficulties with one or more of the following: preparing a hot meal, shopping for groceries, making telephone calls, taking medications, and managing money

Reference:

Lang I, Guralnik J, Wallace RB, et al. What level of alcohol consumption is hazardous for older people? Functioning and mortality in U.S. and English national cohorts. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2007;55(1):49–57.


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