Life course trajectories of alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom using longitudinal data from nine cohort studies

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

March 15, 2015


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.

Published in

BMC Medicine

Volume and page numbers

Volume: 13 , p.1 -9






© 2015 Britton et al.; licensee BioMed Central.

Open Access article

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.



Latest findings, new research

Publications search

Search all research by subject and author


Researchers discuss their findings and what they mean for society


Background and context, methods and data, aims and outputs


Conferences, seminars and workshops

Survey methodology

Specialist research, practice and study

Taking the long view

ISER's annual report


Key research themes and areas of interest