A tipple now and then good for you

The over-65s should not be bullied into abstaining from alcohol by the belief that drink is more harmful to older people than it is to the young or middle-aged.

Regular, moderate drinking poses no additional risks to the over-65s and can even bring health benefits, according to two studies from the Peninsula Medical School in the southwest of England. For men and women, better brain functioning, a better sense of wellbeing and fewer depressive symptoms are linked to moderate drinking when compared with abstinence.

Researchers led by Dr Iain Lang assessed the drinking levels of more than 13000 people in England and the US who were aged 65 and over, and looked at the effects on physical disability, mortality, cognitive function, depression and wellbeing. They concluded that moderate drinking is fine for the over-65s and, in some cases, it is better than not drinking at all.

"We are not advocating that elderly people should go out and get ridiculously drunk," Lang said. "What we are saying is that current guidelines on drinking for the elderly are too conservative.

"A couple of drinks a day will do no harm and will have a more beneficial affect on cognitive and general health than abstinence. In the UK, the guidelines on alcohol consumption in older people are vague," he said.

"Alcohol Concern recommends that older people 'cut down' their alcohol consumption and that moderate consumption 'might be too much for some older people'.

"In Australia and New Zealand, older people are advised to 'consider drinking less'.

In the US, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sets limits for the over-65s of one drink a day, which is half of what they recommend for younger men.

"These recommendations are based on assumptions about what happens to the body as it ages, and that it becomes less tolerant of alcohol. Our findings show that this isn't supported. There is no evidence to suggest drinking at moderate levels is harmful to older people. It can provide health benefits."

The research showed that 10,8percent of US men, 28,6percent of the British men, 2,9percent of US women and 10,3percent of British women drank more than one drink a day. But the research also showed that those drinking on average more than one to two drinks a day achieved similar health results as those drinking up to one drink a day.

The worst results were from those who did not drink at all and from those who were heavy drinkers.

The studies also found lower levels of risk of death or disability among English drinkers than Americans, although the authors did not understand why.

Men and women who drank moderately enjoyed better brain functioning, a better sense of wellbeing and fewer depressive symptoms than those who abstained.

The results were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and Age and Ageing. The research team concluded that over-restrictive limits could do harm because people ignore them or because effort is wasted trying to persuade them to give up alcohol when it is doing them no harm.

"Because over-restrictive limits risk encouraging nihilistic responses or fruitless clinical effort, a review is needed of the evidence base for the lower hazardous drinking definitions for older adults," they concluded in their report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. - The Times News Service, London.