Moderate drinking in older age may prolong life

A new study has discovered that moderate or occasional drinkers have lower mortality rates than people who abstain from alcohol.

The study, which involved almost 8000 older adults (born between 1931 and 1941) who provided information on their drinking habits since 1992 in biannual interviews from 1998 to 2014, contrasts with many previous studies in this area.

Although moderate alcohol intake in older adults has been previously linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death, recent studies have suggested little – if any – health benefit to alcohol. 

Assessing the relationship between alcohol intake and mortality is extremely challenging, partly because of the need to disentangle the effect of alcohol from that of other factors that influence health, and also because people’s drinking habits often change over time.

The Health and Retirement Study (HRS) is “one of the largest and most rigorous” studies on alcohol consumption and death risk in the United States.

At each assessment timepoint in this study, participants were categorised into one of five groups for analysis: lifetime abstainers, current abstainers, heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers and occasional drinkers.

Lifetime abstainers were those who had less than 12 drinks in their lifetime, while current abstainers did not drink in the assessment period but drank, or my have drank in the past.

Heavy drinkers were defined as consuming more than three (men) or two (women) drinks per day or binging more than five (men) or four (women) drinks in a single day.

Moderate drinkers were defined as drinking one to two (women) or one to three (men) drinks one or more days per week, and not binging more than five (men) or four (women) drinks in a single day.

Occasional drinkers were defined as drinking less than one day per week, not binging more than five (men) or four (women) drinks in a single day and drinking a maximum of three (men) or two (women) drinks per day.

By also tracking any deaths that occurred during the assessment period, the researchers could examine the relationship between alcohol intake and mortality.

The analysis accounted for a wide range of additional factors (termed ‘confounders’) that can influence health outcomes – including those that vary over time  (such as level of household assets, smoking, body mass index, health/functioning, depression and chronic disease) as well as static factors such as age, education, sex and race.

The researchers found that, overall, moderate or occasional drinkers had lower mortality rates than people who abstained from alcohol, after accounting for confounding factors.

Mortality among moderate/occasional drinkers was also generally lower than among lifetime alcohol abstainers, at least in women.

As might be expected, the mortality benefit of drinking was lower among smokers than non-smokers and the mortality reduction was also lower for men than women.

The researchers, though, were cautious about drawing firm conclusions from the results. Current abstainers had the highest mortality rate, and this was probably indicative of a ‘reverse causation’ effect whereby people stop drinking at the onset of ill health.

How frequently do you drink during the week?

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Written by Ben

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