Page last updated: August 16, 2017
Moderate alcohol intake may reduce, not increase, the risk of falls in the elderly

Falls are common among the elderly, and markedly increase the subsequent risk of morbidity and mortality. There has been much written about the dangers of even light-to-moderate intake of alcohol among the elderly, with an increase in potential falls being one key reason cited. This may not be in the best interest of many elderly subjects; the demonstrated protection of light-to-moderate alcohol intake against many of the diseases of ageing (especially coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, dementia) could outweigh any dangers from falls if the latter risk is not great.

The present study examined the association between certain patterns of alcohol consumption, including the Mediterranean drinking pattern (MDP), and the risk of falls in more than 2,000 elderly subjects over 3.3 years; at the end of follow up, 21.4 % of subjects reported at least one fall in the previous year. The study found that up to moderate amounts of alcohol (defined as less than 40 grams of alcohol/day for men and less than 24 grams/day for women) did not increase the risk of falls, but actually resulted in a significant decrease of 20% or more in such risk. The risks for having multiple falls or those requiring medical care were also lower for moderate drinkers. The investigators report further that subjects with higher scores for a Mediterranean-type diet, that includes regular wine consumption, had similar or more impressive reduction in their risk of falls.

The specific reasons for such protection are not fully known, but a number of favorable effects on health of moderate drinking (e.g., less osteoporosis, less cardiovascular disease, less dementia, greater functional capacity, etc.) may play a role. While the investigators of this study were able to adjust for many factors known to be associated with falls, residual confounding is always a possibility to explain these results.

To summarize, while previous studies have often reported an increase in risk of falls for heavy drinkers, the present study supports results of many previous studies indicating that light-to-moderate alcohol intake does not increase the risk, and often is shown to decrease the risk of falls and fractures. In the present study, even with adjustments for most known lifestyle factors affecting risk, moderate drinking was associated with at least a 20% decrease in the risk of falls when compared with abstainers. This is a message that needs to be incorporated into drinking recommendations for the elderly.

Reference: Ortolá R, García-Esquinas E, Galán I, Guallar-Castillón P, López-García E, Banegas JR, Rodríguez-Artalejo F. Patterns of alcohol consumption and risk of falls in older adults: a prospective cohort study. Osteoporosis International 2017, on-line publication. DOI 10.1007/s00198-017-4157-2.

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