THURSDAY, Jan. 22, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Healthy people 50 and older who drink alcohol moderately are less likely to suffer physical disabilities that cause so many seniors to lose their independence, a new study says.
The study authors said their research showed that healthy older adults who were light-to-moderate drinkers had 25 percent lower odds of being unable to carry out daily activities such as walking, dressing, eating, running errands or doing chores.
Conversely, heavy drinkers and abstainers had higher risks of disabilities that would limit such activities.
"What it's really telling light-to-moderate drinkers is don't worry, you're probably in good company, and you're probably going to get good benefits from this," said lead researcher Dr. Arun S. Karlamangla, an associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But, the study should also serve as a warning to older adults who aren't in good health, Karlamangla added. For the participants who reported that their overall health was fair or worse, alcohol offered no benefit at all.
"If you're health is not good, you probably should not be drinking," he said.
Study co-author Dr. Alison A. Moore, an associate professor of medicine in the geriatrics division at the David Geffen School of Medicine, said there were two possible reasons why the unhealthy didn't benefit. Alcohol may have negatively interacted with their medications, or their health may have been so poor it wasn't reversible, she said.
The researchers defined light-to-moderate drinking as less than 15 drinks a week with a daily maximum of five for men and four for women. Moore said the study included the number of drinks a day to eliminate people who binge drink. The daily consumption may be part of the protective mechanism, she explained.
Moore said that a common recommendation for older adults is consuming about one drink a day. This study and other new data may change that standard. "There are healthy 65- to 70-year-olds who can take more than a drink a day," she added.
The UCLA researchers said their study was the first to follow a large, nationally representative sample over a period of years to look at the relationship between alcohol and physical disabilities. The findings were published online Jan. 15 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the new research "adds to quite a substantial body of evidence that suggests in people who can demonstrate they can drink safely, there is no inherent medical reason not to drink." Studies by Mukamal and others have suggested that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Alcohol isn't the only adult beverage that may offer health benefits. Drinking coffee daily in midlife may decrease the chance of Alzheimer's and dementia in later years, according to a new Finnish study.
Ths study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, found that people who drank three to five cups of coffee a day had the lowest risk. Their risk was decreased by 65 percent compared to those who drank no or little coffee, the study found.
For more on the benefits and risks of moderate drinking, visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.