Image: Elderly man with a beer
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In an interesting twist, researchers found that elderly drinkers actually reported that they were healthier and happier than non-drinkers. But the scientists said the risks of falling or of alcohol increasing illness or interfering with medications make drinking a bad idea for the senior set.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 3/7/2008 2:36:57 PM ET 2008-03-07T19:36:57

If you’re older than 65 and enjoy sipping more than one glass of wine with dinner or a few drinks in a single sitting, brace yourself for a sobering thought.

That’s too much alcohol for a person your age, according to new research that could put a crimp in senior center happy hours.

Nearly one in 10 older U.S. adults is an “unhealthy drinker,” according to a study published this week in journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Unless they curb their ways, they’ll be at risk for medical problems, social trouble and falls, all of which make the normal hazards of aging even worse, said Elizabeth Merrick, co-author of the Brandeis University study of some 12,400 Medicare recipients in 2003.

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Fair enough. The dangers of alcohol abuse are well known. But what may come as a surprise to the over-65 set — and all those baby boomers about to enter that age range — is the level of consumption it takes to nudge an older person into the category of risky drinker.

More than seven drinks in a week or more than three drinks in one day exceed the recommended limits set by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. A single drink is a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. That’s half the recommended cut-off for men under 65, who are free to have two drinks a day.

“A lot of people do not know the limits are that low for older people,” Merrick said.

Apparently not. If the results of the study were extrapolated to the entire U.S. population, more than 2.8 million people older than 65 would be classified as unhealthy drinkers.

On certain days, that number might include Frank Schutz, 78, an engineering consultant from Cayucos, Calif., who balks at the label.

“I don’t think so,” said Schutz.  “I think a heavy drinker is one who drinks to excess daily. I generally have one drink a day. It can be wine with dinner or a margarita, sure, every now and again."

Limit too low?
It seems a little low, too, to Carol Johnston, who directs activities at a Seattle-area senior center.

“I wouldn’t think that would be excessive,” Johnston said. “I have heard from so many little 80- or 90-year-old ladies who say ‘Doctor says I can have a glass of Mogen David before I go to bed.’”

What’s excessive changes as people age, noted Merrick. Older bodies metabolize alcohol differently and what was a simple diversion a decade ago can be a real danger now.

Study researchers suggest that if senior happy hours or other gatherings promote unhealthy drinking, organizers might make some changes including education — or intervention.

“The idea of taking away something that’s a pleasure in older people is one thing,” Merrick said. “But we’re talking about quality of life and health decisions here.”

About 40 percent of those targeted for drinking too much had habits like Schutz’s: They exceeded only the limit of seven drinks a week, or 30 in a month, researchers said. About 30 percent of participants topped the limits for daily drinking and drank too much in single sitting.

The risky drinkers were only a fraction of the senior population. About two-thirds of people older than 65 said they didn’t drink at all, and about a quarter said their drinking was within the healthy range. About 16 percent of men were risky drinkers, compared to only 4 percent of women.

That didn’t surprise the researchers, who have long known that drinking declines over time and that women drink less as they age, Merrick said. More surprising were the demographics of the risky-drinking crowd.

Risky drinkers surprisingly happy and healthy
They were most likely to be white and male, younger than 70, with higher education, higher income and better health, the study reported. They were more likely to be divorced, separated or single and to live in metropolitan areas.

They were also less likely to be depressed than non-drinkers. Of people who reported depression during all or most of the year, about 6 percent were risky drinkers, while 82 percent said they didn't drink at all.  

People can grumble about the NIAAA drinking limits, but they were developed using risk assessment calculations designed to measure the likelihood of harms ranging from alcoholism to falling down and suffering a head trauma while under the influence, an agency representative said.

The truth is that many people shouldn’t drink at all as they get older, either because of encroaching medical problems, or the possibility of interaction with medication, Merrick said.

Some people can drink in limited amounts with no ill effects, of course. And she acknowledged that other studies have shown that a drink a day might actually be beneficial, even in the elderly.

This week, in fact, researchers in South Carolina reported that non-drinkers who started drinking in middle age were nearly 40 percent less likely to have a heart attack or other heart problem than those who never tipped a glass.

And another study sponsored by the NIAAA found that men who had five drinks or more on days they drank were 30 percent more likely to die of heart attack or stroke than men who drank just once a day. That held true no matter what the average drinking intake was, scientists said.

Moderation is the key
It’s all a matter of moderation, said Ron Hafler, marketing director for the Imperial Club independent living center in Aventura, Fla.  Many of the 200 residents there still enjoy wine with dinner — and a Friday night happy hour.

“They enjoy their drink,” said Ron Hafler, marketing director for the center. “Usually, one drink is enough to make them feel pretty relaxed. It’s just more of a social thing. I don’t think it’s excessive at all.”

That includes Willie Kaplan, 87, a retired professional piano player who still entertains his neighbors — and still likes a glass of wine with dinner and the occasional vodka tonic.

“Right here, I don’t see that it’s any problem,” Kaplan said. “I don’t see anybody here who overdoes it. I think people should know better.”

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