How do middle-aged social drinkers perceive their alcohol consumption?

Research recently published in BMC Public Health found that rather than having health concerns, middle-aged drinkers who consume low-levels of alcohol, place more importance on their drinking behaviors conforming to socially acceptable narratives of their age, gender and identity. Here to talk about the research and what the findings mean for health messages directed at this demographic is lead author, Emma Muhlack.

Alcohol is ubiquitous in many western countries, and most people who consume alcohol don’t have a “drinking problem” as we usually think of it – they drink socially and it has very little to no negative impact on their daily life. They have something to celebrate? Champagne. Work’s finished for the day? Beers at the pub, or wine at the bar down the street. A hard day of yard work in summer? A cold beer hits the spot. Out to dinner with friends? A social glass (or two) of wine.

But just because you don’t have a drinking problem, it doesn’t mean your drinking can’t cause you problems. Increasingly, research shows that even drinking alcohol at very low levels can have adverse effects on your health, with very recent research suggesting that no alcohol at all might be the safest policy.

When people are choosing to drink … they’re doing so in ways that are influenced by, and reinforce, their identities

Because of this, even people who don’t have a “drinking problem” are still at risk of experiencing health problems related to their drinking. We’re interested in what alcohol means for these people and how we can make it easier for them to drink less, so we conducted a systematic review of the literature.

Unsurprisingly, there turned out to be limited research on people without drinking problems. What we did find, though, told us some very interesting things. When people are choosing to drink, they do so to relax (which most of us would probably already suspect), but also that when they choose what and how to drink, they’re doing so in ways that are influenced by, and reinforce, their identities (such as workers and parents) and their expressions of gender.

What our research didn’t tell us was also very interesting. Health wasn’t very important to this group when they were talking about how they drank, or made decisions around their drinking. It was far more important to them that they were drinking the “right” way – that their alcohol consumption fit into the socially acceptable narrative of their gender and identity.

How could we reduce drinking in this group?

Currently, there is very little in the way of campaigns designed to intervene in the drinking of middle aged social drinkers. Most alcohol campaigns target heavy drinkers, and young binge drinkers who are likely to put themselves and others at immediate danger with their drinking.

This is one of the reasons we did this research: if we were to target these drinkers, what sort of things speak to their experiences? We now know that unacceptable drinking behaviors are one of the things that might influence this group.

We usually think of young binge drinkers when we think of unacceptable behaviors, such as public drunkenness, throwing up in the streets, getting into fights, and walking out in front of traffic. These aren’t the behaviors our group were concerned with, though, so the types of campaigns that target young people are unlikely to influence middle aged social drinkers because their behaviors are very different.

Something that might work in this group are reminders that if you drink, you can’t always fulfill your obligations as a parent. It’s harder to get up early and drive the kids to soccer on Sunday morning if you’re a bit seedy from the night before. Or maybe, just drinking at every social occasion sets the example for your kids that it’s normal to drink all the time.

There are some things that might work that are problematic though. For example, telling women to drink less because it’s a bad look, while a possibly effective way to tap into the gendered constructs around drinking, is a problem because it reinforces the idea of social inequality between the sexes.

Ultimately we need to do a lot more research on this group and how alcohol consumption fits into their lives. If we don’t know about them, we can’t be effective in reaching them with important messages to improve their health.

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