Alcohol consumption decreases as we age

How often do you drink? Over the years, are you drinking more or less than before? In this guest post, Annie Britton and Steven Bell, authors of an article published today in BMC Medicine discuss how our drinking patterns change over the life span and what implications this has for public health.

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Alcohol features prominently in our society. On a Friday night, how many of us intend to head straight to the pub after work or relax at home to enjoy a glass or two of wine?

In the UK, the majority of the adult population drink. However, along with the pleasures come the pitfalls, and the harm of binge drinking, drunkenness and alcohol abuse affects all society. As a public health concern, it is important to understand the changing relationship we share with alcohol as we age.

Previous studies haven’t captured the full story. This is because you need data spanning multiple decades of the life course. We set out on a new project, one funded by the European Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council and Alcohol Research UK. We used data from different and overlapping periods of life and we noticed that drinking patterns change across the life course. These trajectories can be linked to health outcomes.

Understanding how drinking behavior fluctuates throughout life is important to identify high risk groups and trends over time. Research on the health consequences of alcohol needs to incorporate changes in drinking over the life course. This is lacking in the current scientific evidence base. Failure to include such dynamics in alcohol is likely to lead to incorrect risk estimates.

The findings presented in BMC Medicine are based on over 174,000 alcohol observations from nine UK groups over their entire lives. The measures of alcohol consumption (both average weekly volume and frequency) were harmonized and analysed separately for men and women.

For men, mean consumption of alcohol rose sharply during adolescence, peaked at around 25 years at 20 units (160g) per week, roughly the equivalent of drinking 10 pints of beer.

Understanding how drinking behavior fluctuates throughout life is important to identify high risk groups and trends over time. Research on the health consequences of alcohol needs to incorporate changes in drinking over the life course.

This declined and plateaued during mid-life, before dropping to 5-10 units, approximately 3-5 pints of beer per week, from around 60 years. Women followed a similar pattern, but reached a lower peak of around 7-8 units per week, around 4 pints of beer.

Frequent drinking was more common in middle to old age, especially among men. A substantial proportion of older men drank daily or most days of the week, while a majority of women tend to drink monthly or on special occasions. Teenagers were more likely to drink in irregular episodes, only drinking once or twice a week

This is the first attempt to harmonize data on drinking behavior from a wide range of population groups over their lifespan with repeated individual measures of consumption.

The findings show how drinking behavior changes over our lifetimes, from adolescence through to old age, and could be used to design public health initiatives and sensible drinking advice.

The next steps in the project are to identify different drinking typologies (such as persistent heavy drinker, increasing drinker and so on) and link these to the risks of major health outcomes, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Previous studies linking alcohol consumption with associated harm have typically used just one measure of alcohol intake.

We have shown that people change the way they consume alcohol as they age, and as such, studies reliant on a single measure of alcohol intake are likely to be biased. Many of the previous findings have been subject to mis-classification bias arising from the inclusion of former-drinkers in non-drinking groups. It is essential that the dynamic nature of exposure to alcohol over the life span is incorporated into the estimates of harm.

For more information on the project visit: www.ucl.ac.uk/alcohol-lifecourse and follow Annie Britton (@AnnieBritton3) on Twitter to be kept up-to-date with our findings.

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Perhaps the reason people drink less as they age is maturity. They value behaviors leading to good health and are likely to have a family for whom they have primary responsibility. That has a way of making one keenly aware of how individual decisions impact others.

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