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Older Adults Practice High-Risk Drinking


More than one-third of older adults are consuming an excessive amount of alcohol, drinking alcohol while taking medications, or consuming alcohol even though they have a condition for which it is risky to drink. These types of behaviors place them at high risk for harming their health.

The new study was conducted at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and was based on data collected from 3,308 adults 60 years and older who had sought medical services from primary care clinics around Santa Barbara. The individuals were classified as high-risk drinkers if they consumed more than two drinks on most days, had one to two drinks on most days and also had certain conditions, such as hepatitis, nausea, or gout; or they drank one to two drinks on most days and took certain medications, including antidepressants or sedatives.

The researchers discovered that overall, 34.7 percent of older adults were at risk because they drank alone or they drank and had certain medical conditions or were taking certain medications. Nearly 20 percent fell into multiple risk categories. Of the older drinkers at risk, 56.1 percent fit into two risk categories and 31 percent fit into all three.

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Study participants who had not graduated from high school were 2.5 times more likely to engage in at-risk drinking compared with those who had completed graduate school. Participants who were age 80 or older had half the odds of engaging in at-risk drinking as those between the ages of 60 and 64.

Previous studies have shown that alcohol misuse and abuse is a significant problem among older adults. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that among 4,646 current drinkers ages 60 and older, 10 percent engaged in excessive drinking.

The recommended drinking level for older adults is one “standard” drink daily for men and less than one for women. “Standard” is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, 4 ounces of liquor, and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

The UCLA researchers note that as many as one-third of older adults in their study practiced high-risk drinking. They suggested that physicians need more information about which patients are most likely to engage in high-risk drinking behaviors so they can better screen for it and take appropriate steps to help their patients.

Sacco P et al. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 2009; Nov; 70(6): 829-38
UCLA Health Sciences, press release April 24, 2010