Page last updated: Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Moderate alcohol consumption may help seniors keep disabilities at bay
A UCLA study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology concludes that for seniors in good health, light to moderate consumption of alcohol may help prevent the development of physical disability.

The researchers based their study on data from three waves of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey’s Epidemiologic Follow-up Study (1982–84, 1987 and 1992). The sample, which included 4,276 people, split evenly between male and female, was about 92% white, with a mean age of 60.4 years.

Drinkers were classified as light to moderate if they consumed less than 15 drinks per week and less than five drinks per drinking day (less than four per day for women). Heavy drinkers were those who consumed 15 or more drinks per week or five or more per drinking day (four or more for women). Abstainers were those who drank fewer than 12 alcoholic beverages the previous year.

Having a physical disability means having trouble performing, or being unable to perform, routine tasks such as dressing and grooming, personal hygiene, arising, eating, walking, gripping, reaching, and doing daily errands and chores. Participants were asked if they experienced no difficulty, some difficulty, much difficulty or were unable to do these activities at all when alone and without the use of aids.

At the start of the survey, 32% of men and 51% of women abstained from drinking, 51% of men and 45% of women were light to moderate drinkers, and 17% of men and 4% women were heavy drinkers.

No one had any disabilities at the outset, but 7% died and 15% became disabled over five years.

The researchers found that light to moderate drinkers in good health had a lower risk for developing new disabilities, compared with both abstainers and heavy drinkers.

In unadjusted analyses, light to moderate drinkers had a 17.7% chance of becoming disabled or dying in five years, compared with 26.7% for abstainers and 21.4% for heavy drinkers. Among survivors, the risk for new disability was 12.5% for light to moderate drinkers, compared with 20% for abstainers and 15.6% for heavy drinkers.

However, after controlling for confounding variables such as age, smoking, exercise, heart attacks and strokes, the benefits of alcohol consumption were seen only in seniors who rated their health as good or better: There was a 3-8% reduction in the odds of developing disability with each additional drink per week in older men and women in good or better health who were not heavy drinkers, but there was no such benefit seen in those who rated their health as fair or poor.

“Light to moderate alcohol consumption appears to have disability prevention benefits only in men and women in relatively good health,” the researchers wrote. “It is possible that those who report poor health have progressed too far on the pathway to disability to accrue benefits from alcohol consumption and that alcohol consumption may even be deleterious for them.”

Source: American Journal of Epidemiology 2009 169(1):96-104; doi:10.1093/aje/kwn294. Advance Access originally published online on November 20, 2008

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