Page last updated: Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Good cheer for Christmas - there are some benefits to getting older!
Two studies in November offer more evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is protective for older populations.

A Spanish study involving 15,500 men and 26,000 women has reaffirmed many dozens of previous studies that drinking a little alcohol every day cuts the risk of heart disease in men by more than a third, irrespective of type of drink. Female drinkers did not benefit to the same extent.

The study was conducted in Spain, a country with relatively high rates of alcohol consumption and low rates of coronary heart disease. The research involved men and women aged between 29 and 69, who were asked to document their lifetime drinking habits and were followed for 10 years.

Crucially the research team claim to have eliminated the “sick abstainers” risk by differentiating between those who had never drunk and those whom ill-health had forced to quit. This has been used in the past to explain fewer heart-related deaths among drinkers on the basis that those who are unhealthy to start with are less likely to drink.

The researchers, led by the Basque Public Health Department, placed the participants into six categories - from never having drunk to drinking more than 90g of alcohol each day. This would be the equivalent of consuming about eight bottles of wine a week, or 28 pints of lager.

For those drinking little, the risk was reduced by 35%. However, for those men who more than moderately, the risk fell to less than 50%. CHD risk has to be put in context with the increased risk of many cancers and cirrhosis as well as Cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, for example, which increases markedly at consumption levels at above 30g a day for men.

The same benefits were not seen in women, who suffer fewer heart problems than men to start with. Researchers speculated this difference could be down to the fact that women process alcohol differently, and that female hormones protect against the disease in younger age groups.

A second study, published by the Office for National Statistics in the UK (ONS), found that pensioners who enjoyed a few drinks every week, had a 23% lower risk of mortality than teetotallers. Examining the lifestyle of those who had died during the study, researchers found that 59% of men never consumed alcohol

Researchers followed a sample of more than 2,000 people, who were aged 65 or over when they took part in the General Household Survey in 1994.

They tracked the group over a ten year period, analysing what factors might play a part in their survival and mortality rates. Unsurprisingly, smoking was found to be the most important factor in determining life expectancy in the over 65s. But researchers also found that those who drank moderately had better survival rates than those who did not drink at all. Examining the lifestyle of those who had died during the study, researchers found that 59% of those men never consumed alcohol. However among those who drank within the Government’s recommended guidelines, the figure was 46%. Among women, 53% of those who had died, never consumed alcohol, compared to 33% who drank less than 14 units a week.

Source: Alcohol intake and the Risk of coronary heart disease in the Spanish EPIC cohort study. Heart. Published Online First: 19 November 2009. doi:10.1136/hrt.2009.173419

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