The good, the bad and the unknown about alcohol and againg

Life After 50

January 27, 2002|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Special to the Sun

For many people, enjoying a fine glass of wine with a well-prepared meal is one of life's simple pleasures, and some research has indicated that moderate drinking may even be good for your health. Studies have shown that seniors who drink wine regularly may lower their risk of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes and even increase bone mass.

One of the latest projects, published recently in the medical journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that elderly Italian patients who drank moderately were less likely to develop age-related dementia than teetotalers. But there is more agreement about alcohol's gastronomical qualities than about its health benefits.

Considerable research has also documented many negative effects of alcohol consumption in the elderly. A study at Ohio State University indicates people have more alcohol-related problems after retirement. Another research project, done by the Center for the Advancement of Health at Duke University, shows heavy drinkers over the age of 50 are more likely to become disabled than non-drinkers.

"People get mixed messages from the various studies that are publicized, and it can be confusing," says Alice Reilly, program manager for the geriatric day program at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. "A glass of wine a day may be OK if that's all you drink. The problem comes into play for those individuals who can't stop after one. And the reality is that for many older adults who are dealing with illness and medications, adding any alcohol can be a very bad mix."

Researchers do agree that the amount consumed is key to positive vs. negative effects. Even in the Italian study mentioned above, researchers found that drinking to excess raised the risk of developing age-related dementia.

"This study shows that among older persons, moderate alcohol intake protects from the development of cognitive impairment," said co-author Graziano Onder, a research associate in the department of geriatrics at Wake Forest University, when the study was released. "However, alcohol abuse is associated with an increased risk of cognitive dysfunction."

Aging often brings with it emotional triggers such as death of a spouse, failing health or loneliness that can lead to later-life alcohol abuse. Because symptoms of problem drinking -- confusion, forgetfulness and falling -- can mimic the signs of aging, it can be an easy problem for families and doctors to miss. Even moderate alcohol consumption can have negative effects on people who suffer from age-related diseases.

Because of those factors, most experts caution against "prescribing" alcohol for the elderly, in spite of any possible health benefits.

"Physicians and politicians are at present divided on how we should react to this growing body of knowledge," Onder said. "The risk of alcohol abuse is elevated among older adults, and elderly people frequently use medications, which may interact with alcohol. For these reasons, alcohol consumption should not be encouraged among older adults as a 'preventive treatment,' and should be monitored by physicians."

Korky Vann writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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