People drink less alcohol as they age

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A new UCLA study shows that people drink less alcohol as they age--but drinking among those who were born in earlier years showed a faster decline than among people born more recently.A new UCLA study shows that people drink less alcohol as they age--but drinking among those who were born in earlier years showed a faster decline than among people born more recently.

For instance, people born in 1925 decreased their drinking an average of 11 percent for each decade of aging while those born in 1935 reduced their drinking about 9 percent each decade.

The study, "Longitudinal Patterns and Predictors of Alcohol Consumption in the United States," is published in the March 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

It demonstrates a pattern that health experts had suspected but never proven, Dr. Alison Moore, associate professor of medicine in the geriatrics division of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the study's lead researcher, said.

"We confirmed that with increasing age, people do drink less," she said. "The kicker is that, over time, the earlier group had a faster decline. People who were born more recently reduce their drinking less as compared with people who were born earlier."

Researchers used data from the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 1971-75 (NHANES I) and from follow-ups conducted between 1982 and 1992. NHANES I survey subjects comprised a sample of more than 20,000 non-institutionalized, non-military United States citizens up to age 74. Subjects in the follow-up were in the 25 to 74-year age range.

The study asked the following questions:

  • How does drinking behavior (drinking vs. abstention) change over time?
  • What are the differences in demographic characteristics among people with different longitudinal drinking patterns?
  • How do age, period, and cohort influence alcohol consumption over time?
  • What demographic factors predict level of alcohol consumption and rate of change in alcohol consumption with increasing age?

The researchers found that in general, white, married males with better education and income, and who smoked, tended to drink more than others. But the researchers also noted that the faster age-related decline in alcohol consumption took place among married males with less education, who smoked and were born in earlier years.

There are a number of reasons for the overall age-related decline in drinking, Moore said. For instance, some people simply stop drinking as they age and others become too ill to drink. "Another reason is people cut down because they don't feel as good when they drink, or are told by their doctors or pharmacists not to drink with a particular medication," she said.

One theory that could explain the disparity in drinking patterns between the earlier and later born groups is that earlier generations tended to drink more. The culture of drinking has changed over time. "My parents had cocktail hour," Moore said. "We don't have that anymore."

But the later-born generation is healthier and more accustomed to better healthcare, so they feel safer in drinking more as they age. "I think people in general are healthier than they used to be," Moore said. "They're drinking for longer periods because they're healthier." However, not all older adults who drink are doing so safely as with increased age, they are more likely to have conditions that could be worsened by alcohol use (such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, depression or insomnia), and to be taking medications that may negatively interact with alcohol (such as most arthritis medications that may cause stomach bleeding with alcohol use).

Other researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine, in addition to Moore, were Drs. David B. Reuben, professor of medicine and chief of the geriatrics division; Gail Greendale, professor of medicine (geriatrics); and Arun Karlamangla, assistant professor of medicine (geriatrics). Others were data analysts Kefei Zhou and M. Kallin Carter, and Robert Gould of the UCLA department of statistics.

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