Coffee and alcohol may help seniors walk better

Alcohol, coffee and cigarettes, known as the dangerous items
Alcohol, coffee and cigarettes, known as the dangerous items

Coffee and alcohol consumption may be associated with a better gait in older adults, suggests a new Dutch study.

Important indicator of health

But smokers were more likely to have worse gaits than nonsmokers, say the authors.

Gait, or the pattern of how a person walks, is an important indicator of health that's influenced by many organ systems, study coauthor Dr M. Arfan Ikram told Reuters Health in an email.

Read: 'Mobility shoes' help ease arthritic knees

Ikram, a neurologist at the Erasmus MC University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, and colleagues analysed information taken from participants in the Rotterdam Study, which was originally designed to examine cardiovascular, endocrine, hepatic, neurological, ophthalmic, psychiatric, dermatological, oncological, and respiratory diseases. Everyone in the study was older than 45 and lived in Ommoord, a suburb of Rotterdam.

Gait assessments were performed on 2,546 participants between 2009 and 2012.

About 82 percent of participants drank alcohol, 92 percent drank coffee, 17 percent were current smokers, and 51 percent were past smokers.

Separate cognitive domains

The researchers measured gait velocity and Global Gait, which is the average of seven "gait domains."

"The concept of gait domains is very comparable to the concept of cognitive domains," Ikram said.

Cognition, Ikram explained, can be disentangled into memory, thinking speed, executive function, which are all separate cognitive domains.

"Similarly, gait can be disentangled into gait-domains," he said, "These gait domains are Rhythm (closely related to your step length), Pace (step time), Base of Support (width between your feet), Variability (regularity of your steps), Phases (how much time you spent on both feet versus single foot), Tandem (walking heel-to-toe), and Turning (how long you take to turn)."

Moderate alcohol consumption (one to three drinks per day) was associated with better Global Gait scores, gait velocity, rhythm and variability, the authors reported in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Drinking more than three cups of coffee per day was associated with better Global Gait scores and gait velocity.

On the other hand, smokers had worse Global Gait scores and gait velocity than non-smokers.

Read: Getting started with walking

Ikram said it's important to keep in mind that the study team only found associations and were not able to prove that coffee, alcohol or smoking caused the gait changes.

More research needed to prove causation

"Further research will be needed to disentangle whether this effect is caused by alcohol, coffee, or smoking per se, or is actually reflecting other aspects that are linked with these substances, such as socio-economic status, lifestyle, working life etc.," he said.

Dr Matthew Bartels said the findings are very interesting, but more research would be needed to prove causation.

Bartels, who chairs the Department of Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine at Montefiore Hospital in New York, wasn't involved with the new study.

"The interesting thing here is that the association may be due to many things, among which is maybe healthier people feel the ability to continue to use the coffee and alcohol, or maybe . . . individuals who are starting to feel unsteady on their feet . . . stop drinking coffee and alcohol," Bartels told Reuters Health in an email.

Read: Moderate exercise may be best

Bartels pointed out that acute alcohol use certainly does not improve gait. (Just ask any police officer who does sobriety tests, he said.)

"I think the main takeaway is that moderate consumption of most items is not harmful and may be beneficial, with the exception of tobacco products, which do not seem to be beneficial for most health measures that have been examined," he said.

Bartels said that good gait is associated with better health outcomes, especially in older people.

"People can improve their gait by walking more – and keeping up their strength," Bartels said, "So doing squats, and walking are more important for maintaining gait than any other simple intervention.

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Image: Dangerous items from iStock

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