Researchers found that moderate alcohol drinkers are more likely to live longer over a 20-year follow-up than heavy drinkers and abstainers. Moderate drinking means consuming about one or two drinks per day. A report published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research stressed that the health benefits of drinking alcohol among older individuals are "intrinsically linked to moderation".

Using data collected from a large study of late-life patterns of alcohol consumption, the investigators monitored 1,824 (1,142 males and 682 females) individuals aged between 55 and 65 who either currently drank or used to drink.

The gathered data included:
  • How much each person drank per day
  • Sociodemopgrpahic factors
  • Whether any had had any previous problems with drink
  • Health factors
  • Social behavioral factors
Charles Holahan, professor of psychology, The University of Texas at Austin, and team at The University of Texas and Stanford University's Center for Health Care Evaluation identified several confounding factors linked to alcohol abstention. They found that a significant number of abstainers (teetotalers) in their study sample were former-problem drinkers, as well as people with health problems and health risk factors, such as poor physical activity and a high degree of tobacco smoking, compared to the moderate drinker's sample.

Put simply - many of the abstainers were either ex-alcoholics or people with factors that would increase the risk of premature death (that is why probably they stopped drinking).

The authors wrote:

However, the salutary effect of moderate drinking may be overestimated owing to confounding factors.

They found that moderate drinkers tended to live longer across a 20-year follow-up compared to heavy drinkers and teetotalers. Mortality risk was 42% higher for heavy drinkers and 49% higher for abstainers than moderate drinkers.

Holahan stressed the need for common sense regarding moderate drinking. One, or perhaps two drinks per day may be good for some people - a lot more might be dangerous.

Holahan added:

Older persons drinking alcohol should remember that consuming more than two drinks a day exceeds recommended alcohol consumption guidelines in the United States and is associated with increased falls, a higher risk of alcohol use problems and potential adverse interactions with medications.

Even so, after taking into account the confounding factors, the researchers found that moderate drinker was still more likely to live longer than the abstainer or heavy drinker.

The authors concluded:

Findings are consistent with an interpretation that the survival effect for moderate drinking compared to abstention among older adults reflects 2 processes. First, the effect of confounding factors associated with alcohol abstention is considerable. However, even after taking account of traditional and nontraditional covariates, moderate alcohol consumption continued to show a beneficial effect in predicting mortality risk.

"Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality"
Charles J. Holahan, Kathleen K. Schutte, Penny L. Brennan, Carole K. Holahan, Bernice S. Moos, Rudolf H. Moos
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research Article first published online: 24 AUG 2010
DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01286.x

Written by Christian Nordqvist