Drinking linked to disability among older Americans

December 17, 2001

Men and women over the age of 50 are more likely to be disabled if they have a persistent history of problem drinking, according to a new study.

"A history of problem drinking, especially when combined with recent heavy drinking, is associated with greater prevalence and incidence of limitations in home and/or work tasks in a near-elderly population," say the study authors Jan Ostermann, Ph.D., and Frank A. Sloan, Ph.D., of Duke University.

They found that problem drinkers were nearly 33 percent more likely to report any limitation in their ability to perform work or home functions, compared with those who did not have a history of problem drinking.

The study, published in the December issue of the Milbank Quarterly, is based on data on nearly 10,000 participants in the Health and Retirement Study. The six-year study began in 1992 and included men and women between the ages of 51 and 62.

Because data on the participants were collected at four time points over the six-year study, the researchers conclude that the increased incidence of disability was most likely a product of problem drinking and not vice versa.

"We found no evidence that people increased alcohol consumption in response to anticipated disability," Ostermann and Sloan say.

The researchers distinguished between participants with a history of problem drinking and heavy drinkers, those without a problem history but who had three or more drinks a day. Those identified as heavy drinkers at the beginning of the study were 20 percent more likely to report a disability by the end of the study period.

They also found that problem drinkers who were not disabled at the beginning of the study were more likely to be become disabled over the course of the study.

"Much disability occurs before age 50, and disability, especially when broadly defined, was associated with heavy alcohol use and a history of problem drinking," say Ostermann and Sloan.
The study was funded in part by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The Milbank Quarterly is a journal of public health and health care policy published by the Milbank Memorial Fund. For information about the journal contact Bradford H. Gray, Ph.D., at 212-822-7287.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health . For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/cfah/. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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