Wealthy, educated, single men risk highest alcohol consumption in later life

Posted on 05 January 2015
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

Wealthy, male, educated, singletons risk highest alcohol consumption in later life

    Ten year study reveals reduction in alcohol consumption post 45
    Wealthy, single and educated men drink more in later life
    Health, relationship status, wealth and education major factors on alcohol consumption

A decade long research project into the drinking habits of over 45s has found that rich, educated, single males are at greatest risk of failing to cut their drinking habits in later life.

The ten year study of more than 4,500 men and women over 45 years of age from academics at Keele University and UCL, has identified the drinking habits of older adults and how these habits changed over a ten year period  in reaction to life course events. The study sought to find how the relationship between alcohol consumption, individual characteristics such as wealth and education and life events varied for men and women. The life course events studied were for partnership status, health, and employment.

The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that single, educated and wealthy men continue to drink more into later life, while women over 50 cut down their drinking after the loss of a partner.

For women, the end of a partnership is associated with a reduction in how much they drink. From the people studied, women who lost a partner reduced their drinking levels by more than 16% at the end of the ten year study. This was a considerably larger reduction than those in a partnership who saw a drop of little more than 11% during the same period.

Wealthy, educated, healthy single males that used to or still do smoke are the most likely to drink more in later life. Major factors for this greater consumption are likely to be associated with multiple opportunities to socialise, due to a single life, and a disposable income. Those with this profile drank on average an equivalent of 24 small glasses of wine a week at the start of the study. This was in sharp contrast to single, retired men with poor health and no qualifications who drank on average an equivalent of five small glasses of wine a week at the start of the study.  The trend that poor health and lower levels of education equals lower alcohol consumption is found for women.

Older people with poor or deteriorating health were found to have the steepest decline in the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumed. This is contrary to the popular belief that high alcohol consumption and poor health go hand in hand. Possible reasons for this include the limits that poor health places on opportunities for social drinking, as well as medical advice about alcohol consumption and interactions with medication.

One additional finding related to health and drinking is that over 50s who had stopped drinking completely at the start of the period of observation and remained in the study were more likely to experience an improvement in health compared to drinkers.

Professor Clare Holdsworth, professor of Social Geography at Keele University and lead researcher on the project, says: “Over the Christmas period many people consume more alcohol. 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.  Suggesting that health organisations target this group is not necessarily straightforward as these men might not identify their drinking as problem behaviour. Also this group are less likely to have poor health in the short term, hence the need for intervention might not be apparent.

“Our findings also challenge the assumption that the end of a partnership is associated with alcohol misuse in later life, which has been found in other smaller-scale studies. In particular, our analysis of drinking behaviours demonstrates that change in partnership status for women is associated with a reduction in alcohol consumption. As a result it is not necessarily appropriate to target alcohol services at this group of older people.”

About the study

At the beginning of the study in 1998 and 2000, researchers found that on average men over 45 consumed 19 units per week compared to nine for women – 21 units is the safe limit for men and 14 for women. This means that on average men over 45 drink the equivalent of just under 14 small glasses (125ml) of wine a week (11% alcohol by volume) while older women consume the equivalent of around seven small glasses of red wine. Just 3% of older men and women were heavy drinkers, classed as drinking more than 50 units a week for men and 35 units a week for women

By the end of the study, the portion of men not drinking had increased to 18% from 6% at the beginning of the study. And the number of women not drinking increased from 18% to 26%. In addition to this, average weekly consumption of alcohol declined to 14 units for men and 7 units for women signalling that we reduce our levels of drinking as we get older.

The data are taken from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). This is a representative, longitudinal study of English residents aged 45/50 and over. ELSA participants were selected from households who participated in the Health Survey for England in the years 1998, 1999, and 2001, if aged 50 or older at the start of the fieldwork for ELSA wave 1 (March 2002 to March 2003). Participants were followed up every 2 years and six waves have been completed, the last wave in 2012/13.For the purposes of this study we use data from wave 0 (carried out in 1998/99 and 2001), wave 4 (2008/9) and wave 5 (2010/2011).

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part as the Secondary Data Analysis Initiative (Ref: ES/K004131/1).


The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. www.esrc.ac.uk.