Although alcohol abuse is most often regarded as a problem affecting young people, a large federally funded study has now found that nearly one in 10 Americans older than 65 drinks too much.
Researchers led by Elizabeth Merrick, a senior scientist at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, used data from a 2003 survey of more than 12,000 Medicare recipients to determine the prevalence of unhealthy drinking among the elderly.
Merrick's team found that 9 percent of those older than 65 engaged in unhealthy drinking, consuming four or more drinks in a single day or more than 30 per month. Overall, two-thirds of those surveyed said they did not drink at all.
The recommended limit for the elderly is lower than for younger people, researchers note, because those older than 65 metabolize alcohol differently and may be more sensitive to its effects, especially if they are taking certain medications.
Health officials say that consuming more than seven drinks per week or more than three during one day raises the risk of medical problems, including falls that can lead to hip fracture.
Merrick and her colleagues found that heavy alcohol users were more likely to be white males and to have higher levels of income and education. They were also more likely to smoke, to be single and to be younger and healthier than those who drank less or not at all.
"It may be that widely publicized messages regarding the benefits of moderate drinking are obscuring more nuanced realities," the authors write, noting that some older adults believe moderate intake is greater than the guidelines suggest.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.