Do our drinking patterns change as we age?

How exactly does behaviour towards alcohol change as we get older and go through different stages in life?

In this edition of Research Highlights, we take a look at findings from a research project that examined these questions by taking a “life course” approach. 

What is a “life course” approach?

Researchers who study the pattern of health and disease in a population often adopt a “life course” approach. They use this approach to examine how our experience of different social and physical factors through the life effect people at different stages.1

The life course approach can help us better understand how and when in life particular behaviours around alcohol are more common. With this knowledge, we can then develop more tailored and effective interventions to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm for specific groups of people.

How do people in the UK consume alcohol over their lifetime?

It has not always been entirely clear how alcohol affects people at different life stages in the UK. However researchers have begun to paint a picture of the life course of alcohol consumption for people in the UK. 

To build this picture, researchers based at University College London combined alcohol consumption data from nine different UK cohort studies.2 All of the studies included a minimum of three repeat alcohol consumption measures. 

The results showed that alcohol consumption varied at different points of the lifespan. For men, the number of units consumed increased during the teenage years before reaching a peak at around the age of 25. 

From the mid-twenties, alcohol consumption began to drop before plateauing between the ages 45 – 60. During this midlife period however, drinking on a daily or almost daily basis became more prevalent.

This is also a period in life where in particular men may be experiencing more health problems related to their cumulative drinking over the years, and Drinkaware has developed the campaign ‘Have a little less, feel a lot better’ aiming to help this group to see the long-term benefits of reducing their levels of alcohol consumption. The researchers found that after the midlife plateau, alcohol consumption began to drop again at age 60.

The researchers found that women in the UK had a similar pattern over their lifetime, however overall unit consumption was lower.

What’s next?

The researchers involved in this project intend to build upon these findings by linking different life course trajectories and outcomes with different drinking profiles such as heavy drinkers and increasing drinkers etc.2

This kind of detailed analysis of the behaviours and outcomes for specific groups of people over their lifetime offers valuable insights for both the public health and charity sectors.

While it is important to consider that people’s drinking patterns within any given society may change over time, and one generation may not drink in the same way as the next, the insights from the life course analysis supplements efforts to understand different segments of drinkers based on their attitudes and behaviours, and enables those working to reduce alcohol-related harm to develop bespoke interventions that may be working more effectively for different groups of people at particular stages in their lives.

References

1. Ben-Shlomo Y, Kuh D. A life course approach to chronic disease epidemiology: conceptual models, empirical challenges and interdisciplinary perspectives. International Journal of Epidemiology. 2002;31(2):285-93.

2. Britton A, Ben-Shlomo Y, Benzeval M, Kuh D, Bell S. Life course trajectories of alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom using longitudinal data from nine cohort studies. BMC Medicine. 2015;13:47.