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Middle-aged adults tend to maintain their alcohol consumption patterns over time

With the exception of certain stressful life events, most middle-aged adults do not change their pattern of alcohol consumption. For example, a new study found that 68 percent of adults did not change their use of alcohol over a 6-year survey period, even though almost 80 percent experienced at least one major stressful life event (most often retirement, hospitalization, or chronic disease diagnosis).

Middle-aged men and women who were hospitalized or developed a chronic condition tended to decrease their drinking levels initially but eventually rebounded to former levels. Those who retired tended to drink more up to 4 years later, and those whose spouses died drank more, but only for a short time. Individuals who got married or divorced tended to either increase or decrease their drinking, with a complex lag time between the event and a change in drinking pattern.

The magnitude of the relationship between stress and alcohol consumption varied by sex and problem drinking history, according to the study which was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (National Research Service Award training grant T32 HS00032). For example, men who became widowed were more likely than widowed women to increase their alcohol consumption. Problem drinkers who got divorced were more likely to drink less alcohol. Also, alcohol consumption decreased on average for newly married men who were not problem drinkers. For men who married and had a history of problem drinking, alcohol use was more likely to remain unchanged. Heavy stress and poor coping skills were positively associated with problem drinking.

Krista M. Perreira, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Frank A. Sloan, Ph.D., of Duke University did not analyze the impact of other stressful life events on alcohol consumption, such as death of a loved one other than a spouse, entry into a nursing home, or being the victim of a crime. Their analysis of changes in alcohol consumption occurring with and following a major stressful event was based on responses of nearly 8,000 men and women between 51 and 61 years of age to four waves of the Health and Retirement Study from 1992 to 1998.

See "Life events and alcohol consumption among mature adults: A longitudinal analysis," by Drs. Perreira and Sloan, in the July 2001 Journal of Studies on Alcohol 62, pp. 501-508.

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