Americans are drinking less alcohol, with middle-aged people consuming about one-third less than 50 years ago, researchers report.
Overall, Americans are drinking less beer, but more wine, while consumption of hard liquor has remained fairly constant. Also, more people say they don't drink, and those born later in the 20th century are more moderate drinkers than their parents.
"It looks like moderate drinking has been increasing, heavy drinking is down a little bit, and total alcohol consumption is down a little bit," said lead researcher Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, a professor of medicine and public health at Boston University School of Medicine.
"It is encouraging news that more people are drinking moderately, and the average intake is coming down rather than shooting up," he said.
For the study, Ellison's team collected data on 8,000 people who took part in the Framingham Heart Study. People in the initial arm of the study were born before 1900 up until 1959. Those from the initial enrollment group as well as their children were interviewed every four years from 1948 to 2003 about their alcohol consumption.
Ellison explained that the Framingham study consists primarily of white, middle-class individuals from the Massachusetts town of the same name. "It generally tends to reflect trends within the country among middle-class, white Americans," he said.
The researchers found that, overall, people are drinking less. "People drank about a third more back in the '50s and '60s than they did in the '70s up to 2004," Ellison said.
There's been a gradual decrease in the average amount of alcohol people drink. For instance, alcohol consumption among men has gone from about two-and-a-half drinks a day to one-and-a-half drinks a day, Ellison said.
"At the same time, there's been a decrease in beer and an increase in wine consumption among people. But the average intake has decreased," he said.
As for liquor, the average intake has remained pretty much the same, he added.
Despite the decline in alcohol consumption, the risk of alcohol dependence did not show a corresponding decrease, the study also found.
"We don't know why alcohol consumption has gone down," Ellison said. "The data are very clear that light to moderate drinking, without binge drinking, is generally good for health, whereas a larger amount of binge drinking is bad. It looks like, in this population, it's going in the right direction."
The study findings were published in the August issue of The American Journal of Medicine.
David L. Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine Prevention Research Center, noted that during "recent decades, the messages about alcohol have increasingly emphasized the potential to derive both pleasure and health benefits from wine, provided the dose is prudent. The trends in this study suggest those messages are having an impact, at least in Framingham, Massachusetts. Among those not vulnerable to alcohol abuse, intake patterns appear to be shifting in accord with expert recommendations."