Lead study author Dr. Arun Karlamangla of the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, found that light to moderate drinking among seniors in good health reduced their odds of developing physical problems that would prevent them from performing common tasks such as walking, dressing and grooming.
"If you start out in good health, alcohol consumption at light to moderate levels can be beneficial," Karlamangla said in a statement. "But if you don't start out healthy, alcohol will not give you a benefit."
The researchers based their study on a sample that included 4,276 people, split evenly between male and female, about 92 percent white, with a mean age of 60.4 years.
Drinkers were classified as light to moderate if they consumed less than 15 drinks per week and less than five drinks per drinking day -- less than four per day for women.
No one had any disabilities at the outset, but 7 percent died and 15 percent became disabled over five years.
The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that light to moderate drinkers in good health had a lower risk for developing new disabilities, compared with both abstainers and heavy drinkers.