Lots of us enjoy an occasional drink and that can be part of a perfectly healthy lifestyle, but we all also know the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. New research published in the journal BMC Medicine has suggested that cases of frequent drinking and alcohol misuse become more common in middle to old age, particularly in men.
The study looked at two measures of alcohol intake – average consumption per week, and the frequency of consumption – from over 174,000 alcohol observations, collected from 1979 to 2013, and including participants born in different eras.
It identified a general pattern, which is similar for men and women. Alcohol consumption generally increases greatly across adolescence, peaks in early adulthood, plateaus in mid-life, and declines into older age.
The variations within this general pattern are greater for men than for women. Average alcohol intake in men was found to peak around 25 years at 20 units, or 10 pints of beer, per week. By around 60 years it had dropped to 5-10 units per week. By comparison, the average peak for women was around 7-8 units per week, or roughly 4 pints of beer.
However, alongside these findings for average weekly intakes across people’s lifetimes, the research found that more older people are drinking to excess. Whilst teenagers are known for binge drinking, consuming large amounts once or twice a week, older people tend to drink more regularly. This again varied according to gender, with a substantial proportion of men drinking most days in a week, whereas most older women were drinking monthly, or on special occasions.
This research is important because it attempts to combine data on drinking behaviour and the associated harms across a wide range of population groups over the course of their life, in order to show accurately how drinking patterns change with age. It is also distinct for using two different measures, where previous studies have used only one measure of alcohol intake.
The hope is that this data could help us to better understand drinking habits, and could be used to design better public health initiatives and drinking advice, more suited to the way people actually drink.
Lead author, Dr Annie Britton, from University College London said: “Understanding how drinking behaviour 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 behaviour over the life course. The current evidence base lacks this consideration. Failure to include such dynamics in alcohol is likely to lead to incorrect risk estimates.”