Research published in the journal BMC Medicine charted drinking habits over 34 years across different age groups and found people shifted into regular drinking patterns during middle age. The study authors say the finding supports recent concerns over alcohol misuse in older people.
The study showed that men’s mean consumption rose sharply during adolescence, peaking at 20 units a week at the age of around 25 years old. The volume drunk declined and then plateaued during mid-life, before dropping after consumers reached the region of 60 years old.
The same pattern was seen in women, but with lower overall consumption (peak of 7-8 units per week).
50% of men were frequent drinkers (daily or most days of the week) during mid to older age.
Alcohol consumption across the years
The study covered participants in different age categories, from 1979 to 2013.
174,000 alcohol observations were collected from a sample size of 59,397, looking at the average amount of alcohol consumed per week, and the frequency of drinking.
“To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to synthesise information from overlapping large population-based cohorts to represent alcohol consumption across the entire life course,” said lead author Annie Britton. The study can help identify where abuse may occur, she added.
“Alcohol consumption and its associated harms are high on the public health agenda.
"In the UK it is estimated that there were 8,367 alcohol-related deaths in 2012 and that 8% of all hospital admissions involved an alcohol-related condition. In order to identify high risk drinkers and plan for resource allocation, an accurate estimate of exposure to alcohol in the population is needed."
In men, mean consumption peaked at around 25 years old, with 20 units consumed a week – roughly the equivalent of 10 pints of beer.
After this point, consumption declined and plateaued for a number of years in mid-life. A decline after the age of 60 years took alcohol consumption down to 5 – 10 units a week (3-5 pints a week).
Women followed a similar pattern, however, the differences were less pronounced. Consumption peaked at 7-8 units per week (4 pints of beer), falling to 2-4 units a week in those aged over 70 years old.
Targeting public health initiatives effectively
By estimating how alcohol consumption changes, it is possible to identify where abuse may occur – and ultimately tackle the problem, said Britton.
“Cross-sectional surveys are limited as they are fixed in one specific historical moment. Alcohol consumption levels fluctuate across life and only analysis of longitudinal data, with repeat alcohol measures, is able to reveal changes in consumption within the same individuals as they age.
“Estimating alcohol consumption trajectories as people age and mature through the life course can ultimately be used to identify associated harm. This allows for the investigation of whether there are sensitive periods during life when certain patterns of alcohol consumption are more harmful, and whether the impact of drinking accumulates over time.
“Such information can be used to inform public health initiatives and sensible drinking advice."
Title: ‘Life course trajectories of alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom using longitudinal data from nine cohort studies’
A Britton, Y Ben-Shlomo, M Benzeval, D Kuh, and S Bell.
Source: BMC Medicine, 2015, DOI 10.1186/s12916-015-0273-z