For anyone who's familiar with substance use trends, these numbers won't come as a huge surprise. We know that use of all drugs -- alcohol included -- peaks in the early 20s, and that generally speaking men are more enthusiastic users than women. But the researchers discovered some interesting findings at the margins of the data.
"Frequent drinking (daily or most days of the week) became more common during mid to older age, most notably among men," the authors write. Older folks don't binge the same way college kids do, so their overall consumption is lower. But they do drink more frequently. Given that there may be some benefits linked to low-to-moderate drinking, especially red wine, there's nothing particularly alarming about this.
On the other hand alcohol remains, on balance, one of the most dangerous intoxicating substances you can put in your body. A single drink doubles your odds of going to the emergency room. It carries a ridiculously high risk of mortality relative to other drugs. If you have a few drinks and get behind the wheel, your odds of a car crash skyrocket. So these findings will be useful from a public health standpoint.
The study also found that teetotaling was relatively rare. "Non-drinkers were uncommon, particularly among men, where the proportion remained under 10% until old age, when it rose to above 20% among those aged over 90," the researchers found.
Given that the authors analyzed studies from the U.K., these findings don't generalize perfectly to an American drinking context. For starters we know that there are a lot more non-drinkers here -- up to 30 percent of the population, by some estimates. And Americans drink less than our British counterparts overall, according to the World Health Organization.
But the research does paint a one-of-a-kind picture of the trajectory of drinking across the course of one's life. From a public health standpoint, we often think of alcohol consumption as a measure that holds steady over time. When we look at the distribution of alcohol consumption in the U.S., we see people who drink a little and people who drink a lot, and think of those categories as mutually exclusive. But "how much do you typically drink" is a question that will have different answers at different points of one's life.
Do you want more alcohol data? Of course you do:
Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you. »