Large-scale research suggests that drinking alcohol in older age may lower mortality risk. However, scientists are cautious about potential biases in their own research and say that more research is necessary.
The Health and Retirement Study (HRS) is “one of the largest and most rigorous” studies on alcohol consumption and death risk in the United States, and a new report has presented the findings of a 16-year follow-up period.
The results appear in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Katherine Keyes, Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, in New York, is the first and corresponding author of the study.
The new report looked at data from nearly 8,000 older adults — that is, people born between 1931 and 1941 who enrolled in the study in 1992.
Since that year, researchers collected information on the participants’ drinking habits and interviewed them twice a year, every year, from 1998 through 2014.
At each of these points, the researchers divided the participants into one of the following five categories: lifetime abstainers, current abstainers, heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers, and occasional drinkers.
The lifetime abstainers had consumed fewer than 12 alcoholic drinks, if any, in their lives. Current abstainers had drunk in the past, but not during the study period, while male heavy drinkers regularly had more than 3 drinks per day, and female heavy drinkers had more than 2 drinks per day.
The researchers also considered people who engaged in binge drinking — defined as 4 or more drinks in a day for women and 5 or more drinks in a day for men — to be heavy drinkers.
Moderate drinkers consumed 1–2 drinks if they were women, or 1–3 drinks if they were men, on 1 or more days per week and did not engage in binge drinking.
Finally, occasional drinkers consumed alcohol less often than 1 day per week. When they did drink, they had up to 3 drinks per day, for men, and up to 2 drinks per day, for women.
The analysis revealed that moderate and occasional drinkers had lower death rates than abstainers.
Current abstainers had the highest mortality rates. However, the researchers explain, this could result from reverse causation — that is, people may have stopped drinking when their health became poor.
Also, importantly, moderate and occasional female drinkers were less likely to die prematurely than lifetime abstainers.
The authors of the report warn that people should interpret the results with caution, as the HRS could contain biases and measurement errors. Also, factors that are not yet known could have influenced the results. More research is necessary
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