Health benefits related to mild to moderate alcohol consumption include better cardiac and cerebrovascular health, decreased risk of dementia and improved quality of life. This might help to explain why we are nowadays less likely to discontinue drinking as we age. There may, however, be a down side. Over-consumption of alcohol can increase risk of cognitive impairment, self-neglect and falls. Considering this, it is surprising that we know so little about the extent to which older people engage in potentially harmful drinking.
I was part of a group of researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who set out to study at-risk alcohol consumption in older people. We did this using data from two long-running surveys on health and ageing: the H70 study and the Prospective Population Study of Women. We compared at-risk drinking in two groups of 75-year-olds: 303 persons born in 1901, and 753 born three decades later in 1930. Participants were asked about their intake of beer, wine and spirits; at-risk drinking was defined as ≥ 100g/week (corresponding roughly to more than 2 drinks/day). We found at-risk drinking in 19% of men who took part in the mid-seventies study, compared with 27% of those who participated in 2005. There was a tenfold increase in at-risk drinking in women, from 0.6 % in 1976 to 10% in 2005.
We concluded that alcohol consumption has changed markedly in 75 year olds, especially in women. It is important to note that the study was set in Scandinavia, where gender differences may be less pronounced than in other parts of Europe. Studies are needed in varied settings in order to evaluate the health implications of changing trends in alcohol consumption in later life.