Friday, April 7, 2017
Grandma Fell Off the Wagon
The news was coming from all major sources earlier this week. The incidence of drinking among Americans over 60, especially among women, is rising. A story from the CNN wire cites a recently published study of analysis of “over 145,000 responses to the National Health Interview Survey from 1997 to 2014. They observed a steady increase in the number of older adults who consumed alcohol. Men reported higher numbers of regular and binge-drinking tendencies than women, but the largest percentage increases were seen in the female population.”
In light of my entry one week ago about the need for careful definitions and last time about studies that give us very little new information, this was worth looking into. Experts believe this trend will increase the need for more “public health programming,” whatever that is.
They clearly define current drinkers as those who consumed “12 or more drinks in any one year in their lifetime and one or more drinks in the past year.” That is a very broad range, but here is the concern. “In the US 20 years ago, 54% of men 60 and older were reported to be ‘current drinkers,’ and 37.8% of women fit the same description.” By 2014, both groups had seen increases: Men rose to 59.9% and women to 47.5%. The difference decreased from 16.2 to 12.4 percentage points. Actually, based on the definition, those numbers are lower than I expected.
The other increase comes in binge drinking: “consuming five or more drinks in a single day in the past year.” For men the increase was from 19.9% to 22.5%, and it was from 4.9% to 7.5% for women. These are people over 60 whose bodies are less able to adapt to large alcohol consumption. They are also more likely to be on medications that may interact poorly with alcohol – hence the concern.
A couple of questions come to mind. First they base their numbers on self-reporting, which is typically less reliable; but with such a large sample this is less of a concern. Second, they are not talking about a stable population. Those who are 60 today were 40 twenty years ago and likely carried their drinking habits forward over those years. Many of those over 60 twenty years ago may not be around to answer the latest survey.
In summary the article recommends doctors have a talk with older patients. My doctor has a talk with me about alcohol. He asks how much, and I say (honestly) rarely more than one drink a week. And he is OK with that because according to the Mayo Clinic: “Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits,” with emphasis on the may. And they define moderate for healthy adults as “one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65.” (That's a lot more than the 12 drinks per year cited above.)
Another question is whether this is really news. An analysis published last December found pretty much the same trends, but looked at people over 50 who answered a different survey. This one didn’t clearly define binge drinking. (Perhaps they used the different definition from the NIH of 4 drinks or just let the survey respondents decide for themselves.) Also, the Huffington Post featured information from yet another survey about two years ago telling how the increase in binge drinking for women of all ages was greater than that of men.
Although men may have a greater drinking problem, some outlets seem more distressed at the prospect of women catching up. The headlines on at least two sites, CBS and newsmax, about that most recent study read: “More older women are drinking hard,” downplaying the same trend among men.
In any case, just wait a month or two and there will be more headlines and more shocking stories. This may be an important issue to the subscribers to the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, but to the media it is just a periodic opportunity to try to incite a little panic in the general public – until the next crisis or shocking research finding comes along.