This cohort study found that alcohol consumption is linked to unhealthier aging with moderate or high alcohol intake, but not with occasional drinking.
Although the harmful effects of heavy alcohol drinking are well known, epidemiological research has found a protective effect of low levels of alcohol intake on mortality. However, the results from some of these studies have been questioned due to methodological limitations. Additionally, a recent meta-analysis found that even small quantities of alcohol intake are associated with an increased risk of cancer and other diseases.
This 2.4-year prospective cohort study of 2,081 older adults (ages 67-75) from Spain investigated whether lifetime alcohol consumption is associated with unhealthy aging. To assess this, the researchers calculated a frailty score consisting of mental health, self-reported vitality, morbidities (incidence of diseases), and functional impairments (physical and cognitive) against the frequency of lifetime alcohol consumption (low, medium, or high). The researchers controlled for potential confounders such as sex, age, education, tobacco smoking, energy intake, and physical activity.
Overall, alcohol consumption was associated with unhealthier aging, especially in the areas of morbidities and functional impairments. However, this association was evident only in participants with a moderate or high frequency of alcohol consumption, not in participants who drank occasionally. Interestingly, the associations strengthened after adjusting for confounding factors.
These results have two important practical implications. First, contrary to common belief, the results suggest that older adults may not gain any health benefits from low alcohol intake. Second, for heavy alcohol drinkers, the results suggest that reducing alcohol intake by just 10 grams/day (over the course of a lifetime) could delay unhealthy aging by 6 months. However, these results are based on a follow-up of 2.4 years and need to be confirmed by longer cohort studies.
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