Overall alcohol use—particularly consumption of beer—is declining in the US, according to a new study published in the August 2008 issue of The American Journal of Medicine. Researchers examined 50 years of data and found several changes in alcohol intake but no change in alcohol use disorders. Americans are drinking significantly less beer and more wine, while hard liquor use has remained fairly constant. More people now report that they are non-drinkers. People born later in the 20th century drink more moderately than older people. As we age, our individual alcohol consumption goes down.
Researchers examined 8,000 records of the Framingham Heart Study, the longest population-based study of American adults ever conducted, to measure alcohol consumption over 50 years. Because the Framingham study recruited subjects that were born before 1900 until 1959, it gives insights into behavior and medical histories through most of the 20th Century. Subjects, both from the original cohort and from the children of the original cohort, have been interviewed every 4 years, from 1948 until 2003. Since each individual was followed directly, a set of histories of lifetime alcohol use could be captured.
While heavy alcohol use is associated with numerous bad outcomes, moderate consumption has been linked to improved cardiovascular health and to improved morbidity and mortality in the elderly. This study shows that, on the whole, the American population is moving in a healthier direction. Despite more favorable patterns of drinking, risk of alcohol dependence did not show a decrease. The proportion of people who developed alcohol-related disorders, such as alcoholic cardiomyopathy or alcoholic cirrhosis remained nearly constant across all age groups.
Writing in the article, Yuqing Zhang, DSc, Boston University School of Medicine, and his co-investigators state, “The findings in this study may be considered encouraging in many ways: the average amount of alcohol has decreased in more recently born cohorts, the percentage of the population exhibiting ‘moderate’ alcohol intake has been increasing steadily, and the percentage reporting ‘heavy’ drinking has decreased over time…While these data suggest the development of more favorable patterns of alcohol consumption over the latter part of the 20th century, that also show that, at the same time, the cumulative incidence of alcohol use disorders has not shown a decrease, and continuing efforts at preventing them are warranted.”