People tend to drink less as they get older, but how much a person's alcohol intake declines over time depends on both their overall health and whether they have a partner, a new report from the U.K. finds.
People in poor health tend to have a steeper drop in their drinking as they age than those in better health, the researchers found. It's likely that older adults with deteriorating health drink less because it's difficult to meet their friends for drinks if they're not feeling well, or because alcohol may interact with medications prescribed by their doctors, the researchers said.
For those who lose their partner, either through a separation or death, the effect on drinking depends on the person's gender: Women who lose their partner show faster decline in their drinking compared with women who don't lose their partner, whereas men who lose their partner show a slower decline in drinking than men who remain partnered up. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]
The study challenges the assumption that the loss of a partner often leads to alcohol misuse in aging adults, the researchers said. "In particular, our analysis of drinking behaviors demonstrates that change in partnership status for women is associated with a reduction in alcohol consumption," Clare Holdsworth, a professor of social geography at Keele University in England, said in a statement.
In their report, the researchers looked at surveys of more than 4,500 men and women living in the U.K., examining how people's drinking habits changed as they grew older. The study participants were all over age 45 at the start, and every two years, they answered survey questions about their life, including their wealth, health, education levels and life events, such as retirement or the passing of a spouse.
The researchers also found that men who are wealthy, single and educated drink the most of any group. It's possible these men have more disposable income to spend on alcohol, as well as more social engagements, especially because they are single, the researchers said. Men who fit into this group drank, on average, an equivalent of 24 small glasses of wine a week.
In contrast, when the men reached retirement age, those who had poor or deteriorating health or less education tended to drink an equivalent of five small glasses of wine weekly, the researchers said. Similarly, women with lower levels of education and poor health tended to have the lowest alcohol intake throughout the study.
Women over age 50 who lost a partner also drank an average of 16 percent less at the end of the study than they did at the beginning, the researchers found. By comparison, women who stayed in a relationship showed an 11 percent drop in alcohol consumption over the same period.
"Our findings suggest that the group most at risk of heavy drinking in later life are older single men with high levels of education and above-average wealth," Holdsworth said.
But men in this group might not identify their drinking as problem behavior, making it difficult for health organizations to target them for intervention, she said. "Also this group are less likely to have poor health in the short term, hence the need for intervention might not be apparent."
The study, which started surveying people in 1998 and 2000, found that, on average, men older than 45 drank 14 small glasses of wine a week, whereas women of the same age drank seven small glasses of wine a week. The researchers considered a small glass of wine (11 percent alcohol by volume) to be the equivalent of about a half cup (125 milliliters).
The number of men who said they did not drink grew from 6 percent to 18 percent from the beginning to the end of the study. For women, that percentage grew from 18 percent to 26 percent over the course of 10 years.
Keele University announced the results on Monday (Jan. 5), but the researchers originally released the report in September.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.