Racial/ethnic differences in 30-year trajectories of heavy drinking in a nationally representative U.S. sample

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017 Jan 1;170:133-141. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.10.031. Epub 2016 Nov 3.


Background: Racial/ethnic minorities bear a disproportionate burden of alcohol-related problems in the U.S. It is unknown whether this reflects harmful patterns of lifecourse heavy drinking. Prior research shows little support for the latter but has been limited to young samples. We examine racial/ethnic differences in heavy drinking trajectories from ages 21 to 51.

Methods: Data on heavy drinking (6+ drinks/occasion) are from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N=9468), collected between 1982 and 2012. Sex-stratified, generalized estimating equations (GEE) were used to model heavy drinking frequency trajectories as a function of age with a cubic curve, and interactions of race with age terms were tested to assess racial/ethnic differences. Models adjusted for time-varying socioeconomic status and marital and parenting status; predictors of trajectories were examined in race- and sex-specific models.

Results: White men and women had similarly steep declines in heavy drinking frequency throughout the 20s, contrasting with slower declines (and lower peaks) in Black and Hispanic men and women. During the 30s there was a Hispanic-White crossover in men's heavy drinking curves, and a Black-White female crossover among lifetime heavy drinkers; by age 51, racial/ethnic group trajectories converged in both sexes. Greater education was protective for all groups.

Conclusion: Observed racial/ethnic crossovers in heavy drinking frequency following young adulthood might contribute to disparities in alcohol-related problems in middle adulthood, and suggest a need for targeted interventions during this period. Additionally, interventions that increase educational attainment may constitute an important strategy for reducing heavy drinking in all groups.

Keywords: Heavy drinking; Longitudinal analysis; Racial/ethnic disparities.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data*
  • Alcoholism / ethnology*
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Class
  • United States / ethnology
  • Whites / statistics & numerical data*
  • Young Adult