Conference Coverage

Study shines light on ‘invisible epidemic’




ATLANTA – Early findings from the ongoing Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial–Depression Endpoint Prevention (VITAL-DEP) study are bringing to light the “invisible epidemic” of alcohol use among older adults.

“Alcohol use in the older population is a growing public health problem, and it’s going to get worse as baby boomers age,” Dr. Grace Chang said during an update on the study at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. “[The problem] has been described as an invisible epidemic because of the very, very low rates of identification.”

Dr. Grace Chang Courtesy Kim Sokoloff

Dr. Grace Chang

“But this counterculture generation is bringing its alcohol and drug habits into old age,” said Dr. Chang, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Dr. Chang cited national survey data and statistics in her presentation. Accidental drug overdose death rates tell part of the story; the rates are highest among adults aged 45-60 years, at 18.67 per 100,000, compared with 18.66 in those aged 25-44 years, and 10.52 in those aged 55-74 years, she noted, adding that “it’s a problem just on the verge of exploding.”

In a subset of 1,045 subjects from among the more than 18,000 enrolled in the large, randomized VITAL-DEP study of older adults at risk for late-life depression, more than half scored 3 points or higher on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT-C), a three-item alcohol screen that helps identify those who are hazardous drinkers or who have active alcohol use disorders.


VITAL-DEP is the depression prevention ancillary study to the ongoing VITAL randomized trial (NCT 01169259), which looks at the effects of Vitamin D and fish oil on preventing heart disease, cancer, and stroke in a cohort of nearly 26,000 adults. VITAL-DEP is assessing the ability of the agents to prevent depression and improve mood among older adults, according to the principal investigator, Dr. Olivia I. Okereke of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston.

Dr. Olivia I. Okereke

Dr. Olivia I. Okereke

The study, involving a “one-of-a-kind late-life depression prevention cohort” has successfully completed enrollment and randomized above target, with more than 18,000 subjects. Thus far, follow-up and tracking are 95%, and the study promises to serve as an invaluable resource on the topic of late-life depression and late-life emotional health beyond treatment outcomes, Dr. Okereke said.

In Dr. Chang’s update on the early findings with respect to alcohol use, she noted that one reason why the matter of alcohol use is of concern is that aging can lower the body’s tolerance to alcohol, and could explain in part the increased risk for falls, motor vehicle accidents, and unintentional injuries among older adults. Alcohol use also can increase the risk of angina and coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, liver disease, osteoporosis, memory problems, and mood disorders. In addition, alcohol can interact with medications, including seemingly benign over-the-counter medications like herbal remedies, aspirin, and acetaminophen, she said.

Further, a history of alcohol use disorder increases the risk for chronic medical conditions, even after 5 years of stable remission, she noted.

In VITAL-DEP, alcohol use was measured in two ways – using AUDIT-C and by measuring habitual alcohol use.


That more than half of the subjects scored 3 or more on the AUDIT-C is particularly concerning, because among women, a score of 3 on the 0- to 12-point scale is considered positive for hazardous drinking or active alcohol use disorders, and for men a score of 4 is considered positive, Dr. Chang said.

Even in men, a score of 3 or more could indicate a problem, she said.

The score distribution was 8% each for scores of 5 and 6, 15% each for scores of 1 and 3, 26% for a score of 4, and 28% for a score of 2, she said, reiterating that the findings likely represent an underestimate of the problem.

Younger age (50-59 and 60-69 years) was associated with a high score of 5 or 6+ points, and older subjects (aged 80+ years) were less represented in the very low (0 or 1) and very high (5 or 6 points or above) score groups; most were in the 2- to 4-point range.

Further, men who completed the AUDIT-C were more likely than women to be heavier drinkers (prevalence of higher scores was 24% vs. 7% among women), Asian subjects were most represented among those with low scores (61% in the 2-point category), and black and Asian subjects were less represented in the very high point range.

Findings also varied by education level and income. For example, those who did not complete high school were overrepresented at the low and high score levels, and high scores (6+) were more represented among those with lowest and highest income levels (less than $30,000/year, more than $120,000/year).


Next Article: