Do Drinkers Change Their Patterns?
Alcohol consumption is a common activity in the U.S. However, not all people drink in the same ways, and researchers have identified a number of common patterns of intake. Some patterns of consumption indicate the presence of diagnosable alcohol-related problems, or an increased risk for eventually developing such problems. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from two U.S. institutions used an examination of two separate groups of participants to determine how often alcohol-consuming adults switch from one typical drinking pattern to another over a fairly short or fairly long period of time.
Alcohol Consumption in the U.S.
More than 50 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 64 drink alcohol at least once a month, according to recent figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The peak rate of consumption (69.2 percent) occurs among young adults between the ages of 21 and 25. While many drinkers in this age range typically consume alcohol in small or moderate amounts, more than half participate in a form of intoxication-producing, short-term intake called binge drinking. The binge drinking rates are also over 50 percent for alcohol users between the ages of 26 and 34. Much smaller percentages of people in these and other teen and adult age groups qualify as heavy drinkers by maintaining a pattern of weekly or monthly alcohol intake that exceeds the commonly accepted guidelines for moderate, fairly safe drinking. As is true with binge drinking, the heavy drinking rate reaches its peak (14.4 percent) among young adults between the ages of 21 and 25.
Broadly speaking, alcohol consumers fall into one of eight potential patterns of intake. These patterns range from very occasional use or abstinence with no bouts of excessive drinking to common but irregular use with moderate to high involvement in excessive intake. People who fall into the last pattern of consumption drink alcohol on at least 50 percent of all days and habitually surpass the gender-specific standards for moderate intake.
In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from RTI International and the University of Vermont used information gathered from two groups of drinkers between 1999 and 2003 to determine how often alcohol consumers change their patterns of intake in a period of time lasting less than six months, as well how often alcohol consumers change their pattern of intake over a longer period of two years. The shorter-term group contained 200 men and women, while the longer-term group contained 33 men. All of the participants in the first group qualified as at least occasional heavy drinkers; in addition, 22 of the participants in the second group had diagnosable symptoms of alcohol abuse or alcoholism.
The researchers found that the single most frequent drinking pattern among the study participants was common and regular alcohol consumption with moderate to high involvement in excessive intake. Twenty-four percent of the participants drank in ways that fit this pattern. After analyzing changes in drinking patterns, the researchers concluded that these changes were fairly common over both a relatively short and relatively long period of time. In the shorter-term group, most of the pattern changes took place in people who consumed alcohol in risky or clearly dangerous ways. In the longer-term group, there was a greater tendency to switch between various drinking patterns; in addition, the pattern-switching involved a much wider array of drinking behaviors.
The study’s authors note that some of the changing drinking patterns they observed in the two groups of participants clearly indicated either an escalation of involvement in risky alcohol consumption, or alternately, a de-escalation of involvement in risky consumption. They believe that successful monitoring of increasing patterns of use could potentially provide valuable information for timely alcohol interventions and subsequent treatments. However, the authors also note the potential limitations in their work, including a reliance on the self-reports of the study participants to establish the drinking patterns present in any given individual.