Seniors Raising a Glass to Good Health

Improved health means they're drinking more than previous generations

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Updated on February 22, 2005

TUESDAY, Feb. 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- While it's natural to cut back on drinking as you age, new research suggests recent generations of older Americans are cutting back just a little less than their parents did.

While the reason for this trend remains unclear, the researchers speculate that better access to health care and improved general health may mean today's 'young old' feel they can get away with a little more drinking than their parents did at the same age.

That doesn't mean today's seniors are out-drinking their children, however. In keeping with age-related trends, older people today still drink much less than young people, the research finds.

"It's normal to cut back on your drinking as you age. And that's probably a wise thing," said study co-author Dr. Alison Moore, a geriatrician and an associate professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Researchers have long known that the people consume less alcohol as they grow older. Possible explanations include illness, as well as slower metabolisms that make it harder for the bodies of older people to process booze.

This new study is unusual, according to Moore, because it examines differences between older people from different generations.

In the study, researchers examined national surveys conducted from 1971-1975 and 1982-1992 involving more than 14,000 Americans. The people surveyed were aged 25 to 74 in the early years of the surveys; in some cases, the initial researchers relied on family members for information when people who took part in the earlier surveys had died or become unable to take part themselves.

The findings appear in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Males, whites, unmarried people, smokers and the well-educated -- along with the young -- were all more likely to drink than those in other groups, the study found. (The researchers defined drinking as downing at least 12 drinks over a year).

The researchers found that people born in 1925 decreased their drinking by an average of 11 percent with each new decade of adult life. Those born in 1935, by contrast, only reduced their drinking levels by 9 percent each decade.

Why this change? Health definitely plays a role in drinking levels, and illness could explain why some people quit or drink less when they're older, said Dr. Saverio Stranges, a research instructor in social and preventive medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo's Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.

"I also think the reason why older people in the last generation tend to keep drinking to some extent is because they're more healthy than the older people of previous generations," said Stranges, who's familiar with the findings. In other words, today's healthier 60- and 70-somethings may feel that with better diets and health care, it's safer for them to drink a little more than it has been in the past.

Moore said future research will analyze the role of health in the drinking habits of senior citizens. For now, though, older people should be a little cautious when it comes to overindulging in alcohol, she said. "It could be that drinking will place them at risk for bad things as they age," Moore said.

Stranges pointed out that moderate alcohol consumption has positive effects, but people need to use it wisely. "The way alcohol is consumed can be important: it's good to drink with food and try to split the alcohol use throughout the week rather than just the weekend," he said.

The good news for seniors: Their drinking patterns already tend to fit that pattern, and may not need to change. "Drinking without food or drinking only during the weekend -- these kinds of behaviors are much more frequent among young people," Stranges said.

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