• alcohol misuse;
  • elderly;
  • prevalence

OBJECTIVES: To examine the prevalence of unhealthy drinking patterns in community-dwelling older adults and its association with sociodemographic and health characteristics.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional analysis of nationally representative survey data.

SETTING: The data source was the 2003 Access to Care file of the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, which represents the continuously enrolled Medicare population.

PARTICIPANTS: Community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 and older (N=12,413).

MEASUREMENTS: The prevalence of unhealthy alcohol use by older adults defined in relation to two parameters of recommended limits: monthly use exceeding 30 drinks per typical month and “heavy episodic” drinking of four or more drinks in any single day during a typical month in the previous year. Sociodemographic and health status variables were also included.

RESULTS: Nine percent of elderly Medicare beneficiaries reported unhealthy drinking, with higher prevalence in men (16%) than women (4%). In logistic regression analyses with the full sample, higher education and income; better health status; male sex; younger age; smoking; being white; and being divorced, separated, or single were associated with higher likelihood of unhealthy drinking. Among drinkers, in addition to sociodemographic variables, self-reported depressive symptoms were positively associated with unhealthy drinking. Among unhealthy drinkers, race and ethnicity variables were associated with likelihood of heavy episodic drinking.

CONCLUSION: Almost one in 10 elderly Medicare beneficiaries report exceeding recommended drinking limits. Several distinct unhealthy drinking patterns were identified and associated with sociodemographic and health characteristics, suggesting the value of additional targeted approaches within the context of universal screening to reduce alcohol misuse by older adults.