Today's Generation Slower to Stop Drinking as It Ages

As people get older, they tend to drink less alcohol. However, more recent generations are slower to cut back when compared with their grandparents, new research shows.

The study appears in the current issue of American Journal of Public Health.

Drinking has substantial positive and negative effects on physical, mental, and social health. Since the U.S. population is getting older, it's important to know how drinking patterns change with age, writes researcher Alison Moore, MD, a professor of geriatrics at UCLA.

Other studies have hinted at this trend to cut back in a person's later years. But Moore's study is the first large-scale study to take a broader perspective back in time.

Moore and her colleagues analyzed nationwide data obtained from 1971-1975 and 1982-1992. This included survey data, face-to-face interview responses, and telephone interview results for more than 20,000 adults between ages 25 and 74.

They found:

—43 percent of people consistently drink over their lives

—31 percent consistently abstain throughout the follow-up surveys. Consistent abstainers are typically older, female, nonwhite, unmarried, less educated, not working, nonsmoking, and have lower income.

—During periods when the U.S. economy was booming, drinking was more prevalent.

—Men drank more alcohol than women.

—Men and women both cut back as they get older; men cut back drinking by 19 percent per decade, but for women it's 13 percent per decade.

—Starting smoking was linked with a 21 percent increase in drinking; quitting meant a 12 percent cutback in drinking.

Her data also showed that previous generations curbed their intake more — and faster — than more recent generations, Moore explains. For example, people born in 1925 cut their intake by 11 percent for each decade of aging, whereas those born in 1935 cut their alcohol by 9 percent for each decade, she explains.

It's likely that later generations are healthier and more accustomed to better health care. Therefore, they feel safer drinking more as they age, Moore notes in a news release. "I think people in general are healthier than they used to be. They're drinking for longer periods because they're healthier."

Adults who quit drinking are likely to have conditions that are worsened by alcohol use, like gastrointestinal reflux disease, depression, or insomnia, she says. They also may be taking medications that interact badly with alcohol, such as arthritis drugs that cause stomach bleeding with alcohol use.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: News release, UCLA. Moore, A. American Journal of Public Health, March 2005; vol 95: pp 458-464.