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A Glass of Cheer for Old Age

Health benefits of moderate drinking increase with age

THURSDAY, July 25, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The best that most people can say about growing old is that it beats the alternative, but a new British study serves up this cheery thought: The health benefits of moderate drinking increase with age.

That's because a drink or so a day protects against heart disease, whose toll rises much more with age than the incidence of drinking-related problems such as cancer, liver disease and accidents, says research in this week's British Medical Journal.

"People have long believed this to be the case," says Ian R. White, the statistician in the British Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit who led the study. "But nobody has really quantified it. Our contribution is to point out the effects of age on the U-shaped curve."

That U-shaped curve is on a chart showing the association between alcohol intake and death rate. It is not seen for younger people. Between the ages of 16 and 34 for men and 16 and 54 for women, there is a straight-line relationship -- more drinking means a higher mortality rate, the British study finds.

However, after those ages, the U-shaped curve takes over. Teetotalers have a death rate slightly lower than people who drink moderately. The curve that starts at zero intake thus goes down slightly and then begins to rise as intake increases. The bottom of the curve is the lowest mortality rate.

Using death statistics for England and Wales and information on drinking habits from a national survey, White and his colleagues found the low point of that curve shifts as people grow older. The measure of intake they use is a British standard, 9 grams of alcohol.

"That would be a half-pint of beer, a smallish glass of wine or a shot of whiskey," White says. Americans use a different standard, 13 grams of alcohol.

For all women over 65, the lowest point of the U-shaped curve is an intake of three units of alcohol a week; for all older men it is eight units. The low point goes up with age. For women, the low point of the curve is 1.6 units a week for ages 55 to 64 and 3.2 units a week for ages 75 to 84. For men, the lowest point is 7.2 units a week at ages 55 to 64 and 8.0 units a week over the age of 85.

The researchers then looked at the data in a different way, asking how much someone can drink without raising the risk of death by 5 percent. For men 55 to 64, it is 26 units a week, going up to 34 units a week after 85; for women 55 to 64 it is 14.5 units a week, going up to 20 units a week over 85.

Those numbers yield practical guidelines for health-conscious drinkers, White says.

The recommended limit for a woman is 1 unit a day up to age 44, 2 units a day up to age 74, and 3 units a day over 75. For men, it is 1 unit a day up to age 34, 2 units a day to age 44, 3 units a day to age 54, 4 units a day to age 84 and 5 units a day after age 85. Anything over that increases the risk of death by more than 5 percent, White says.

The American Heart Association cautiously says moderate alcohol intake is associated with lower risk of death -- with the emphasis on "moderate."

The association's guidelines call for a daily limit of 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof whiskey or 1 ounce of 100-proof whiskey, with no changes for age. Saving up the allowance for a binge is not advisable, the heart association says.

White also adds a caution that is being taken into account by American authorities, who are lowering the level of blood alcohol in defining drunk driving.

For younger people, he says, alcohol-related accidents are a significant cause of death, and so "a greater focus could be placed on avoiding risky patterns of drinking, rather than on reducing average alcohol consumption."

What To Do

You can get the healthy drinking guidelines from the American Heart Association.

For the dark side of drinking and the elderly, go to

SOURCES: Ian R. White, statistician, British Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit, Cambridge, U.K.; July 27, 2002, British Medical Journal
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