Evidence from friendship groups of men and women aged 35 to 50 reveals that binge-drinking and drunken behaviour are not unusual among older adults, despite their initial claims that they had become more moderate drinkers with age.
The authors say the findings, published today in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness, suggest heavy drinking is not the sole preserve of young people. Their findings are also in line with Office for National Statistics figures, which suggest that the proportion of 25 to 44 year olds in the UK who drink more than the recommended weekly amount is similar to that among 16 to 24 year olds (men 26% and 21% respectively; women 19% and 23% respectively.
Lead researcher Dr Carol Emslie, from the MRC/Chief Scientist Office Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, said:
“When it comes to alcohol consumption, middle aged drinkers like to think they are ‘older and wiser’ than they were in their 20s. Initially, people in our focus groups stated they had moderated their drinking with age and singled out youthful binge drinking as a problem for society. However, as the discussions progressed, stories of recent heavy drinking contradicted these claims.
“In particular, older adults find it hard to say ‘no’ to a drink in social situations, with some feeling they have to make up excuses to deflect peer pressure. This shows how normalised heavy drinking remains in this age group, where not drinking is the behaviour that requires explanation, rather than the other way round. The approaching festive season could make it especially hard to stay in control of alcohol consumption in social situations.”
The researchers studied 36 participants in Scotland, who were divided into eight focus groups of men and women who knew each other socially and had shared experiences to discuss. Half of the participants reported drinking over the recommended weekly alcohol limits (21 units for men, 14 for women) and six of these were drinking harmful amounts (over 50 units for men and 35 for women).
Some participants recalled feeling compelled to come up with excuses to avoid having another drink. Women sometimes said “I’m de-toxing” or “I’m on a diet” when refusing a top-up, and both men and women reported purposefully taking the car to parties to have a cast-iron reason to avoid drinking at all on a night out.
Professor Dame Sally Macintyre, director of the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, said:
“This intriguing study illuminates what is often an invisible problem. While excessive drinking in young adults often leads to visible disruption in our towns and cities, older adults tend to drink behind closed doors where their behaviour is hidden from society.
“It also demonstrates the importance of in-depth research in understanding the reasons behind observed drinking behaviours in early mid-life. This can help health promoters and policy makers to develop effective intervention strategies with a greater focus on this age group.”
Notes to editors
Contact Hannah Isom,
Senior press officer, Medical Research Council
T: 0207 395 2345 (out of hours: 07818 428 297)
1. The paper, ‘Older and wiser? Men’s and women’s accounts of drinking in early mid-life’ is published in Sociology of Health & Illness.
2. For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk
3. Carol Emslie is available between Monday 5 and Wednesday 7 December to discuss the research. To request an interview, please contact the MRC press office.