A study led by an Indian-origin University of California-Los Angeles researcher suggests that light to moderate drinking among elderly people can reduce their likelihood of developing physical problems that would prevent them from performing common tasks like walking, dressing and grooming.
"If you start out in good health, alcohol consumption at light to moderate levels can be beneficial," said Dr. Arun Karlamangla, an associate professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
"But if you don't start out healthy, alcohol will not give you a benefit," added the lead author of the study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Arun and his colleagues based their study on data from three waves of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey's Epidemiologic Follow-up Study (1982, 1987 and 1992).
The sample, which included 4,276 people split evenly between male and female, was about 92 percent white, with a mean age of 60.4 years.
Drinkers were classified as light to moderate if they consumed less than 15 drinks per week and less than five drinks per drinking day (less than four per day for women).
Heavy drinkers were those who consumed 15 or more drinks per week or five or more per drinking day (four or more for women), while abstainers were those who drank fewer than 12 alcoholic beverages the previous year.
The participants were asked whether they experienced no difficulty, some difficulty, much difficulty or were unable to do any of the physical activities at all when alone and without the use of aids.
At the start of the survey, 32 percent of men and 51 percent of women abstained from drinking, 51 percent of men and 45 percent of women were light to moderate drinkers, and 17 percent of men and 4 percent women were heavy drinkers.
No one had any disabilities at the outset, but 7 percent died and 15 percent became disabled over five years.
The researchers revealed that light to moderate drinkers in good health were found to have a lower risk for developing new disabilities than both abstainers and heavy drinkers.
However, the benefits of alcohol consumption were seen only in seniors who rated their health as good or better, when the researchers controlled for confounding variables such as age, smoking, exercise, heart attacks and strokes.
"Light to moderate alcohol consumption appears to have disability prevention benefits only in men and women in relatively good health. It is possible that those who report poor health have progressed too far on the pathway to disability to accrue benefits from alcohol consumption and that alcohol consumption may even be deleterious for them," the researchers wrote.