Alcohol consumption as people get older has been on the rise over the past decade. While experts claim that moderate drinking could lead to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, studies nowadays rarely — if at all — tackle the health benefits of alcohol. However, recent evidence suggests that there is also a link between alcohol consumption in later life and mortality.
A study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that drinking alcohol in older age can lower mortality risk. The group involved, namely the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), is considered one of the largest and most rigorous studies that look into alcohol consumption and death risk.
Researchers from Columbia University in New York City investigated whether or not alcohol consumption in older age could affect the mortality rate. To do so, the researchers recruited almost 8,000 adults from the HRS cohort — the majority of whom were born between 1931 and 1941 —who have provided thorough information about their drinking habits since 1992. In addition, the researchers also conducted interviews with the subjects at least twice a year from 1998 until 2014. This method sets the current research apart from previous studies which only assessed their subjects’ alcohol intake at a single point in time.
At each assessment point, the researchers categorized the participants into one of five categories for proper analysis: lifetime abstainers, current abstainers, heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers, and occasional drinkers. In addition, they also tracked any deaths that occurred during the 16-year follow-up. This allowed them to accurately examine the relationship between mortality and alcohol consumption.
As detailed in the study, lifetime abstainers are defined as people who had less than 12 alcoholic drinks in their lifetime. Current abstainers are those who did not drink during the assessment period but drank in the past. Heavy drinkers, on the other hand, consume more than two (for women) or three (for men) drinks per day. Moderate drinkers, meanwhile, drink only one to three (for men) or one to four (for women) drinks a few times a week. Lastly, occasional drinkers were defined as people who drank less than one day per week, but not binging more than three (for men) or two (for women) in a single day. (Related: Everything in moderation: Drinking a glass of wine daily helps lower depression risk.)
Furthermore, their analysis also included a variety of additional factors, termed “confounders,” that could influence the outcome of the participant’s health. These confounders include time-varying ones like the level of household assets, smoking, BMI, health/functioning, depression and chronic disease. It also included static factors like age, education, sex and race.
From the results, the researchers found that moderate and occasional drinkers had a much lower mortality rate than people who abstained from drinking alcohol, even after accounting for the confounding factors. Current abstainers or people who have reportedly drunk alcohol in the past had the highest mortality rates. This particular finding is indicative of a “reverse causation” effect where people stopped drinking once their heart health has been compromised.
In addition, moderate and occasional drinkers were also less likely to experience premature death compared to lifetime alcohol abstainers, at least among women. The researchers also noted that the mortality benefit of alcohol consumption was less effective on smokers than non-smokers. The same can be said about sex—here the mortality reduction was lower in men than in women.
Despite finding an association between moderate drinking and reduced mortality rates, the researchers warn that their findings could potentially contain biases and measurement errors. They also warned of the risk of confounding factors not included in their study. Because of this, they suggest that additional research and usage of improved data sources are needed to present much more solid findings.
Learn more about the effects of alcohol consumption at Health.news.