older adults drinking

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MILAN, Italy — Older patients who drink alcohol regularly have a better quality of life before and after surgery, according to new research. Researchers in Germany found that people over 60 who enjoy drinking experience improved mobility, self-care, and fewer problems undertaking daily activities compared to those who don’t drink or only have an occasional beverage.

“Our study finds that older patients with potentially unhealthy alcohol intake report that some aspects of their quality of life are better compared to those who abstain from alcohol or drink at very low levels,” says Vera Guttenthaler from University Hospital Bonn, in a media release.

“One explanation may be that higher alcohol consumption may lead to elevated mood, enhanced sociability and reduced stress.”

Health officials generally advise men and women to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week — which equates to six pints of beer or 10 small glasses of wine. As people live longer, estimates predict that the number of patients needing surgery will increase. Understanding the impact of alcohol on surgery outcomes is important.

Less pain for heavier drinkers?

The findings come from a study of 628 adults over 60 in Germany, including 231 women and 397 men. They underwent elective operations at the hospital lasting at least an hour between 2018 and 2019.

Participants had to report on their drinking habits at the start using the AUDIT-C (Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test for Consumption) survey. It considers frequency, amounts consumed on each occasion, and occurrences of heavy drinking.

A questionnaire about quality of life ranked mobility, self-care tasks such as washing and dressing, usual activities like study, work, household chores, and family or leisure time. Researchers also asked the older patients about pain or discomfort and anxiety or depression during their pre-operative anesthesia visit and again 180 days after surgery.

Additionally, study authors took into account a range of factors including age, ASA (American Society of Anesthesiologists) physical status classification, education level, and BMI (body mass index). The team also divided the participants into two groups based on alcohol intake: no or low alcohol consumption (LAC) and medium to potentially hazardous (HAC).

Overall, 30 percent reported drinking potentially unhealthy amounts of alcohol — 138 men (22%) and 48 women (8%). The average BMI was significantly higher among low drinkers, and heavier drinkers were much more likely to attend college.

Prior to surgery, patients in the HAC group reported substantially better overall health, less pain and discomfort, were more likely to perform self-care, and had a better ability to perform usual activities than those in the LAC group.

Women benefit more than men

Female HAC-patients found it easier to undertake usual activities and reported less pain or discomfort than female LAC-patients resulting in a significantly better pre-operative quality of life compared to LAC-women. However, there were no significant differences in pre-operative quality of life between male patients who consumed little or no alcohol and those drinking potentially unhealthy amounts of alcohol.

Post-surgery analyses found that overall, unhealthy drinkers reported significantly better mobility, self-care, and usual activities than light drinkers or sober patients. Similarly, women in the HAC group reported less problems in performing usual activities and rated their overall health status as significantly better than women who abstain from alcohol or drink at very low levels.

The findings, presented at Euroanaesthesia 2022 in Milan, are observational and don’t provide a cause. They are part of a trial evaluating risk scores for postoperative delirium.

The team notes they did not assess other factors that might influence quality of life including socioeconomic status, comorbidities, and physical activity. In addition, the cut-off values of the AUDIT-C test have not been validated in older hospital patients, so its sensitivity and specificity in this group is unknown.

“Therefore, only a tendency in the relationship of alcohol consumption and quality of life could be assumed”, concludes co-author Dr. Maria Wittmann. “But this is an exciting topic for further studies.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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  1. dede says:

    I am a drug and alcohol counselor who works with older adults and I consider your article and findings ridiculous. A little over 600 people self reporting data is not a scientific study of any magnitude or reliability. Alcohol is not good for aging persons period. The science is out, the data in. Read the literature. Older people are getting sick and dying every day, and falling to their death, inebriated alone. This article is simply wrong.

    1. Al says:

      Maybe there’s some confirmation bias in your take, since you work with potentially the worst cases of alcoholism and substance abuse? As an alcoholic who went sober with AA, then relapsed during covid, I’d have to say I am significantly less stressed day to day, even if it is smashing my liver. Less pain, and maybe, do we want to pretend people live forever?

  2. R Clary says:

    People do seem happier when drinking – so true!
    And if you’re elderly, who cares? DRINK AWAY WHAT’S LEFT OF YOUR LIFE!
    I prefer sobriety and a lifestyle filled with biking, swimming, nature walks, hiking, yoga, strength training, tennis and softball.
    And no, I would not trade this in for the illusion of “life quality” that comes in a bottle.