Research examines the impact of 'social' drinking among older adults

Nearly half of Americans older than 65 years of age self-report as current drinkers. Most do not develop alcohol use disorders; however, it remains unclear if growing older entails greater vulnerability to alcohol's effects. Research on the impact of "social" drinking – comparable to a glass or two of wine with dinner – among older adults has found a notable impact on daily activities such as the ability to operate a car. These results and others will be shared at the 42ndannual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Minneapolis June 22-26.

It is estimated that approximately 20 percent of the US population will be 65 or older by 2030. National data indicate that during the last 15 years, the proportion of current drinkers has increased disproportionally among respondents over the age of 45. Thus, we have a growing population of aging adults who continue to consume alcohol. While most of the research on acute alcohol effects focuses on doses that achieve … legal intoxication, many if not most adults – particularly those in a 'middle-aged' range – do not drink to intoxication."

Sara Jo Nixon, professor and director of the Center for Addiction Research &Education at the University of Florida

Nixon's research is instead designed to examine the impact of typical drinking among older adults, roughly equivalent to a drink or two with a meal. Shewill discuss findings at the RSA meeting on Monday, June 24.

"In studies to date, we have compared healthy, current drinkers who are either 25 to 35 or 55 to 70 years of age," said Nixon. "Dose responses vary. For example, on a simple working memory task, the younger group showed no alcohol effects. However, the older group that received a low dose of alcohol actually performed better than the non-alcohol control group. When we examined performance on a driving simulator, younger adults were relatively unaffected by alcohol while older adults showed greater variability in steering and speed control with increased alcohol doses."

Nixon added that the older-adult group was comprised of particularly healthy individuals. "If different responses were observed among these exceptionally healthy participants, it could be expected that the impact would be larger among older adults with common conditions. We need to better understand what underlying neurobehavioral processes are compromised in order to expand our understanding of moderate drinking effects, drinking and neurocognitive decline, and necessary interventions such as those designed to maintain driving skills," she said.

"From a public health perspective, we need a systematic study of moderate drinking," said Nixon, "that includes a study of the acute effects of socially relevant doses of alcohol. This line of research would be valuable for the health and well-being of older adults, as well as the lives of their families and friends."

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