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Two Drinks Too Many for Older Adults, Affects Walking


We have all heard the warning, “Don’t drink and drive,” but how about “Don’t drink and walk”? A new study found that healthy older adults who had two drinks had difficulty walking, which increased their risk of falling.

Two Alcoholic Drinks Can Impair Walking Ability

Although consuming two alcoholic drinks is considered a moderate amount and is lower than the current legal limit for driving, it can impair response time and the ability to avoid obstacles while walking in older adults. Researchers reached this conclusion when they tested 13 healthy adults in their early sixties after they consumed two vodka and orange drinks.

The study participants began the test by walking on a treadmill at a steady pace. A small wooden obstacle placed at the end of the belt moved toward the subjects, and they had to avoid it. Judith Hegeman, of Saint Maartens Hospital in The Netherlands, noted that after the subjects had consumed their drinks, “obstacles were hit twice as often, response times were delayed and response amplitudes were reduced.”

These difficulties occurred even though the alcohol levels of the participants were considered to be safe for driving. Yet while there are established legal and considered safe limits associated with alcohol consumption and driving, there are none established for walking.

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Each year, approximately one-third of adults age 65 and older falls, often resulting in moderate to severe injuries, including hip fractures and head trauma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 18,000 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries in 2007, and 2.1 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in 2008 in emergency departments.

Older adults get some mixed message about alcohol use. Because older people have less tolerance for alcohol, a moderate amount may be considered one drink daily as compared with up to two daily for younger adults. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that people age 70 to 79 who consumed up to seven drinks per week were 27.4 percent less likely to die than people who did not drink at all, and 29 percent less likely to experience a cardiac event.

But, as Hegeman noted, even small amounts of alcohol “affects brain function and increases fall risk. An increased fall risk has been associated with impaired obstacle avoidance skills.”

This new study is the first to evaluate walking and obstacle avoidance and moderate alcohol use in the elderly. Previous research has explored the impact of alcohol on posture, and studies of falls show they are mainly due to tripping and stumbling.

Two drinks appear to be too many for older adults, as they significantly impair their ability to avoid obstacles while walking. Hegeman noted that “The present data show that the required skills for obstacle avoidance frequently fail even after consumption of a low dose of alcohol.” Older adults should definitely not have “one for the road,” even when walking.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Maraldi C et al. Arch Intern Med 2006; 166:1490-97
UK Telegraph