The researchers found that daily/almost daily drinking was most common in middle-aged and older adults - particularly among older men.
Lead author Dr. Annie Britton, of University College London in the UK, and her team say the findings may aid the development of public health initiatives to encourage sensible drinking practices and reduce the prevalence of alcohol use disorders.
Around 17 million Americans aged 18 and older have an alcohol use disorder, and alcohol consumption is responsible for around 88,000 deaths each year, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the US.
In order to reduce the prevalence of alcohol use disorders, it is crucial to gain an accurate estimate of which populations are at high risk so interventions can be targeted as needed. According to the researchers, one way to do this is to estimate alcohol consumption patterns as people age.
"Understanding how drinking behavior fluctuates throughout life is important to identify high-risk groups and trends over time. Research on the health consequences of alcohol needs to incorporate changes in drinking behavior over the life course," Dr. Britton explains. "The current evidence base lacks this consideration. Failure to include such dynamics in alcohol is likely to lead to incorrect risk estimates."
As such, the team conducted the first study to assess drinking patterns throughout the entire life course, from adolescence to old age, by overlapping data from a number of large, UK population-based cohorts.
In total, the analysis involved 59,397 men and women with 174,666 alcohol observations that were collected between 1979 and 2013. The researchers assessed the average amount of alcohol the participants consumed each week and how often they engaged in drinking.
Frequent drinking most common in men over 65
The results of the analysis, which are published in BMC Medicine, revealed that both men and women saw a sharp rise in the average amount of alcohol consumed during adolescence, and this peaked in young adulthood. During middle age, however, alcohol consumption declined and plateaued, before declining again in older age.
Women were found to have a lower average peak alcohol consumption than men. Peak alcohol consumption for men reached 20 units a week, while the peak for women was around 7-8 units a week.
On assessing drinking frequency, the team found that daily/almost daily drinking was most common in middle and old age - particularly among older men, with more than 50% of men aged 65 and older drinking every day or almost every day.
While teenagers and young adults were found to have higher overall alcohol consumption, their drinking was most likely to occur over 1 or 2 days a week. Women were more likely than men to drink monthly or only on special occasions.
Dr. Britton says their findings highlight the potential inaccuracy of some previous studies estimating alcohol consumption in certain populations:
"We have shown that people change the way they consume alcohol as they age, and as such, studies reliant on a single measure of alcohol intake are likely to be biased. It is essential that the dynamic nature of exposure to alcohol over the life span is incorporated into the estimates of harm."
Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study published in The BMJ, which suggested the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption may be "overestimated."