BACKGROUND: Alcohol consumption patterns change across life and this is not fully captured in cross-sectional series data. Analysis of longitudinal data, with repeat alcohol measures, is necessary to reveal changes within the same individuals as they age. Such data are scarce and few studies are able to capture multiple decades of the life course. Therefore, we examined alcohol consumption trajectories, reporting both average weekly volume and frequency, using data from cohorts with repeated measures that cover different and overlapping periods of life.
METHODS: Data were from nine UK-based prospective cohorts with at least three repeated alcohol consumption measures on individuals (combined sample size of 59,397 with 174,666 alcohol observations), with data spanning from adolescence to very old age (90 years plus). Information on volume and frequency of drinking were harmonised across the cohorts. Predicted volume of alcohol by age was estimated using random effect multilevel models fitted to each cohort. Quadratic and cubic polynomial terms were used to describe non-linear age trajectories. Changes in drinking frequency by age were calculated from observed data within each cohort and then smoothed using locally weighted scatterplot smoothing. Models were fitted for men and women separately.
RESULTS: We found that, for men, mean consumption rose sharply during adolescence, peaked at around 25 years at 20 units per week, and then declined and plateaued during mid-life, before declining from around 60 years. A similar trajectory was seen for women, but with lower overall consumption (peak of around 7 to 8 units per week). Frequent drinking (daily or most days of the week) became more common during mid to older age, most notably among men, reaching above 50% of men.
CONCLUSIONS: This is the first attempt to synthesise longitudinal data on alcohol consumption from several overlapping cohorts to represent the entire life course and illustrates the importance of recognising that this behaviour is dynamic. The aetiological findings from epidemiological studies using just one exposure measure of alcohol, as is typically done, should be treated with caution. Having a better understanding of how drinking changes with age may help design intervention strategies.