Older Adults Often Exceed Alcohol Consumption Limits

Guidelines for "safe" alcohol use among older adults recommend daily limits (no more than 2 drinks for men and 1 drink for women), weekly limits (no more than 14 drinks for men and 7 drinks for women) or a combination (no more than 1 drink per day, 7 drinks per week, or 3 drinks per drinking session, regardless of sex).

The proportion of older adults who actually exceed each of these limits (i.e., engage in risky drinking) and experience associated alcohol-related problems is unknown. To explore these issues, researchers surveyed 1291 non-abstinent, community-dwelling older adults at baseline and 10 years later.

The prevalence of risky drinking differed across guidelines, ranging from 23 percent to 50 percent among women and from 29 percent to 45 percent among men.

Both men and women who exceeded consumption limits were more likely to have alcohol-related problems (e.g., difficulties with relationships and functioning) both at study entry and follow-up. These problems were more prevalent in men.

Both men and women reduced consumption after 10 years.

The limit of no more than 7 drinks per week or 3 drinks per day offered the best combination of sensitivity and specificity in predicting alcohol-related problems in both men and women. At this cut-off, 16 percent of women and 34 percent of men had alcohol use problems at follow-up.

Comments by Joseph Conigliaro, MD, MPH: In this community-based sample, risky drinking (defined by specific consumption levels) was prevalent among older adults, and guideline cut-offs were associated with alcohol-related problems. Further, data from this study confirm that different consumption limits for older women and men are not justifiable.

Reference: Moos RH, Brennan PL, Schutte KK, et al. High-risk alcohol consumption and late-life alcohol use problems. Am J Public Health. 2004; 94(11):1985-1991.

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