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The Hidden Health Benefits of Alcohol?

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As someone who will turn 65 in less than six months, I noted with interest the New York Times article that summarized a new government report on drinking and the elderly.

Before doing that, I should note that the 2010 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans is saying some radical things about alcohol. That is, the expert report by the committee for the alcohol section of the guidelines declared that:

Strong evidence consistently demonstrates that compared to nondrinkers, individuals who drink moderately have lower risk of coronary heart disease...

Moderate evidence suggests that compared to nondrinkers, individuals who drink moderately have a slower cognitive decline with age...

An average daily intake of one to two alcoholic beverages is associated with the lowest all-cause mortality and a low risk of diabetes and CHD (coronary heart disease) among middle-aged and older adults.

What the hay -- drinking results in a longer life and less dementia, according to the government! There has been kickback on these conclusions. The comparable Australian guidelines, for example, issued a somewhat different set of recommendations. For the Aussie experts, "Any benefits are mainly related to middle aged or older people." After all, you don't usually die of fatty build-up in your veins and develop Alzheimer's until you are in your twilight years.

But the American elderly report, as represented in the Times, mentions no such coronary, cognitive or mortality benefits -- only negatives due to drinking by older Americans. At points, it seems the elderly drinking report is in direct contradiction to the government experts who created the dietary guidelines, to wit, "Alcohol also can make certain age-related health problems worse, like high blood pressure, diabetes..."

Taken together, the contrasting (or are they complimentary) emphases "drinking is only beneficial to older Americans," "drinking is most harmful to older Americans," sound like the punch line for a Groucho Marx joke -- "You should never drink before you are old, and then you should quit." To be fair, the Times article is headlined, "Why getting old means drinking less," and the government report doesn't recommend abstinence for older Americans, but "that people over 65 shouldn't consume more than seven drinks in a week." But neither makes drinking by older Americans sound very advisable.

As for how burning this problem is, the report at the government website reveals that 40 percent of over-65 Americans currently drink alcohol.

While we're discussing the matter, perhaps we can turn to some actual data, as out of place as that may be in a family publication. In 1997, the New England Journal of Medicine published a prospective study of a half a million middle-aged and older Americans and their drinking -- the largest such study of drinkers' health outcomes ever conducted. Subjects were identified and their drinking assessed, then they were followed for the next nine years. The study was funded by the American Cancer Society.

Looking at men and women who began the study ages 60-79 who were at low risk for cardiovascular disease and death, those who had two drinks a day had .8 the death rate abstainers manifested in the follow-up period; those who had three drinks daily had a slightly lower (.9) risk of death than abstainers; and only those who drank four or more drinks daily were at the same risk for death during the course of the study as abstainers. (Abstainers were lifelong, since more recent abstainers might have quit drinking due to a health condition.)

Looking at subjects ages 60-79 who were at high cardiovascular risk, the results were largely the same, EXCEPT, the relative risk of their dying compared with lifetime abstainers was .8 no matter how much they drank -- up to and including four or more drinks daily!

I don't know, shouldn't a report on health and elderly drinking take note of such findings?

Around the Web

Alcohol - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Discovery Health "How Alcohol Works"

Alcohol use: Why moderation is key - MayoClinic.com

Effects of Drinking Alcohol: Health Benefits vs. Risks

Long-term effects of alcohol - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia