7 September 2011

For older women, a drink a day keeps the doctor away

By
Regular and moderate alcohol consumption in working middle-aged women has been found to improve their health by helping them to 'wind down'.
older woman drinking

Credit: Veer Images

SYDNEY: Regular and moderate alcohol consumption in working middle-aged women has been found to improve their health by helping them to ‘wind down’.

The new study, published in PLoS Medicine today, analysed data from the U.S. Nurse’s Health Study, a long-term study that has tracked the health conditions of 121,700 female nurses since 1976. It focussed on the 13,894 participants who survived to age 70 and were not considered to be heavy drinkers.

“In this large cohort of older women who survived to at least age 70, moderate alcohol consumption at midlife was associated with modestly better overall health status,” said the authors, led by Qi Sun from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, U.S.

How to age successfully

The researchers found that those middle-aged women (median age 58 years) who drank five to 15 grams of alcohol per day were 20% more likely to have good overall health when older, in comparison to non-drinkers.

The women who drank alcohol five to seven days a week were nearly 50% more likely to have “aged successfully” when compared to non-drinkers.

But what defines “successful aging”? Sun and colleagues defined the term as describing a woman who has survived to 70 years old and can pass assessment tests to qualify cognitive function, physical function, mental status and medical history.

Different characteristics, such as smoking status, body-mass index, physical activity and maintenance, were qualified and measured to best account for confounding factors and ultimately provide more accurate results.

The study’s results were found to be consistent with other research, such as the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH). The ALSWH found that of almost 12,000 older Australian women aged 70 to 75 years, those who did not drink alcohol, or who drank very rarely, were more likely to die over a six-year period, as compared to those who drank at low levels.

Take-home points

“It would be easy to misinterpret this study as evidence that drinking is good for you. Rather, the take home message is that regular small amounts of alcohol in middle-age might be good for you,” said Jayne Lucke, principal research fellow at the Centre for Clinical Research at The University of Queensland, who was not involved in the study.

Sun confirmed that although these findings imply that alcohol consumption has positive effects for health, this does not mean that it is the solution to health problems. The study stressed that moderate alcohol consumption on a regular basis, void of binge drinking or otherwise heavy spurts of alcohol consumption, was found to promote good health when older.

“There are many other ways of promoting healthy ageing other than drinking alcohol,” commented Lucinda Burns, senior lecturer at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “For example, increasing the opportunity for meaningful social and cultural activities would seem more appropriate. Another more appropriate public health message from the findings is that spreading the amount of alcohol consumed over the week is less harmful than drinking the same amount on one occasion.

Does income come into it?

Rosa Alati, a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) fellow, commented on the novelty of the study in its age-specific findings, but also questioned the fastidiousness of the measurements of confounding factors.

“[While it is] quite an important and well-established longitudinal study, and [the researchers] tried to take into consideration some aspects of socio economic status, including education, education of spouse and marital status, they did not look at income,” he said.

Income is an important factor to take into account, because if the participants were all middle-class, this could be the reason why moderate alcohol consumption improved health. Alati added that we would, “need to see more research on this area that can account for the variables this study did not account for.”

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