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December 25, 1996

Screening for Problem Drinking in Older Primary Care Patients

Author Affiliations

From the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (Dr Adams), and University of Wisconsin, Madison (Drs Barry and Fleming). Dr Adams is now with the Department of Medicine, Section of Geriatrics, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.

JAMA. 1996;276(24):1964-1967. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03540240042028

Objective.  —To describe potentially hazardous alcohol use among elderly patients in the primary care setting and to assess the widely used CAGE questionnaire (cut down, annoyed by criticism, guilty about drinking, eye-opener drinks) as a tool for detecting self-reported heavy and binge drinking among these patients.

Design.  —Cross-sectional study.

Setting.  —The offices of 88 primary care physicians at 21 sites in southeastern Wisconsin.

Patients.  —A total of 5065 consecutive consenting patients older than 60 years.

Measures.  —A previously validated self-administered questionnaire that included beverage-specific questions about the quantity and frequency of regular drinking in the last 3 months, the number of episodes of binge drinking (≥6 drinks per occasion), and the CAGE questionnaire.

Results.  —Fifteen percent of men and 12% of women regularly drank in excess of limits recommended by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (>7 drinks per week for women and >14 drinks per week for men). Nine percent of men and 2% of women reported regularly consuming more than 21 drinks per week. When we administered the CAGE questionnaire, 9% of men and 3% of women screened positive for alcohol abuse within 3 months. The CAGE performed poorly in detecting heavy or binge drinkers; fewer than half were CAGE positive when the standard cutoff of 2 positive answers was used.

Conclusions.  —Alcohol consumption in excess of recommended limits is common among elderly outpatients. The CAGE questionnaire alone is insufficient to detect such drinking. Asking questions on the quantity and frequency of drinking in addition to administering the CAGE increases the number of problem drinkers detected.