You Don’t Necessarily Drink Less Alcohol as You Get Older — Here’s Why
Photo by Illiya Vjestica
- Researchers say people don’t necessarily drink less alcohol as they transition from their 20s to their 30s.
- They did note that people, whether they’re light, moderate, or heavy drinkers, tend to stay on the same track through adulthood.
- Researchers note alcohol misuse doesn’t go away on its own just because someone gets older. The person needs to make conscious choices to address the issue.
There exists in our popular consciousness an image of the heavy drinking, hard-partying college-aged young adult.
With that comes the expectation that after their early 20s, most of these people settle down and reduce their drinking habits.
Now, a new study from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta suggests that while some people do cut back as they get older, it may not be as much as you’d expect.
First, it depends on how much you drink in the first place.
Researchers studied 1,004 people between ages 17 and 33 and surveyed them seven times.
Researchers reported that whatever track the participants started on — as a light, moderate, or heavy drinker — in their teens and young adulthood, they tended to stay on that track.
There were some small variances.
Light drinkers tended to drink light throughout the entirety of the study.
People who drank moderately in their teens ramped up in their early 20s and then tended to slightly reduce how much they drank by their early 30s.
High alcohol use groups followed a similar trajectory, drinking a lot in their early 20s and trailing off slightly by their early 30s.
Between ages 24 and 29, heavy drinkers cut about a drink per day out of their habit, from 5.5 drinks to 4.5.
Moderate drinkers drank 0.27 fewer drinks daily, falling to an average of 1.28 per day.
Moderate and heavy drinkers also tended to report more negative consequences from their drinking, from poorer health and problems at work to difficulties with interpersonal relationships, the research showed.
Self-selection and normalization
The researchers also found that heavy drinkers tended to socialize with peer groups that also drank heavily or used other substances.
However, the situation can be much more complicated than that, according to Thomas Delegatto, MS, CADC, executive director of Recovery Works Merrillville, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center for adult men and women in northwest Indiana.
“Rarely do we find that people are able to only associate with others who drink like them. Typically people find themselves in a diverse group of individuals with varied drinking habits,” Delegatto told Healthline.
“Someone struggling with excessive use of alcohol will often try to minimize or hide the amount of alcohol that they are consuming from their families, peers, friends, and co-workers or employers. They may also tend to seek out those who they perceive to drink more than them in order to feel better about their own alcohol consumption,” he said.
Cameron Haslip, a research assistant at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, agrees.
“There is a large self-selection component — especially as we age,” Haslip told Healthline. “Longitudinal data has reported both social selection and social influence affect the association between the individual and network drinking consumption in adults, with reports of a stronger influence from social selection.”
For that reason, Haslip is working with Northwell Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) on Project TAMMI, “a no-cost study that aims to help people reduce alcohol use to healthier levels.”
NIAAA recommendations for healthy drinking levels are fewer than three or four drinks per sitting and fewer than 7 and 14 drinks per week for women and men, respectively.
But while most of the United States consumes alcohol at a similar rate to its European peers, we’re more likely to binge drink than most.
In 2018, almost 140 million Americans aged 12 or older reported being current alcohol users, with 48 percent of this group reporting binge drinking and almost 12 percent of this group reporting heavy drinking in the past month.
“The idea of abstaining during the week and binge drinking on the weekends is mostly an American tradition,” Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW, CFSW, director of clinical services at the Ambrosia Treatment Center in California, told Healthline.
More research needed
Experts say what’s clear is there’s no reason to think that one’s drinking habits over the years will change without a conscious choice.
“Since this is a new finding, it is useful because it makes sure we take moderate and heavy drinking seriously and don’t simply assume it will resolve on its own,” said Dr. Omar Manejwala, chief medical officer with Catasys, a technology-enabled healthcare company that focuses on helping people make behavioral changes to their health.
And there are limitations in the methodology, too.
“This is a meaningful study, but it’s also important to note (as the authors do) that this was a study of middle-class white students and was based on self-reporting of drinking, not on measuring drinking,” Manejwala told Healthline. “That can sometimes introduce bias.”
That said, if you’re concerned about your alcohol use, Delegatto says you should consider the following questions:
- Do you need to drink more in order to feel the effects of alcohol?
- Do you become angry or irritable when you’re drinking?
- Do you feel guilty about drinking?
- Do you have problems at work or school because of drinking?
- Do you think it might be better if you cut back on your drinking?
“If one answers yes to some of these questions, they may already be experiencing consequences related to their alcohol consumption,” he said.
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