Science Focus - the home of BBC Science Focus Magazine
A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips – heavy drinking adds 4cm to waistline © Sally Anscombe

A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips – heavy drinking adds 4cm to waistline

Published: 01st April, 2020 at 11:11
Subscribe to BBC Science Focus Magazine and get 6 issues for just £9.99

Daily drinking over a lifetime has been found to add up to 4cm to older adults' waistlines, in addition to health risks of higher blood pressure, stroke and poorer liver function.

  • More than half of alcohol consumers have been 'hazardous drinkers' at some point: having three or four drinks, four or more times a week.
  • Hazardous drinkers had higher systolic blood pressure and poorer liver function than those who had never drunk that amount regularly.
  • The longer adults engage in heavy drinking, the larger their waistline in older age.

Heavy drinking into older age adds up to 4cm to the waistline, new research suggests.

The study found that more than half of drinkers aged 59 and over have been heavy drinkers, and that this is linked to a larger waistline and increased stroke risk.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) examined the association between heavy drinking over a lifetime and a range of health indicators including cardiovascular disease.

Published in the Addiction journal, the study found that heavy alcohol consumption over a lifetime is associated with issues like higher blood pressure, even if drinking is stopped before 50.

It is also linked to poorer liver function, increased stroke risk, larger waist circumferences and body mass index (BMI) in later life.

However, scientists say stopping heavy drinking at any point in life is likely to be beneficial for overall health.

Read more about the effects of alcohol:

First author of the study Dr Linda Ng Fat, of UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, said: “Alcohol misuse, despite the common perception of young people binge-drinking, is common among older adults, with alcohol-related hospital admissions in England being the highest among adults aged over 50.

“Previous studies have focused on single snapshots of consumption, which has the potential to mask the cumulative effects of drinking.”

Researchers used data from the Whitehall II cohort – which collected information from UK civil servants aged 34–56 at study outset – since 1985–88. The final sample for the study was made up of 4,820 adults aged between 59 and 83.

A heavy drinker was identified using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test for Consumption (Audit-C), a standard screening tool for GPs, which assesses how often people drink, how much, and how often they binge – have 6 or more drinks.

An example of a hazardous drinker would be someone who has three or four drinks, four or more times a week.

Participants were asked to complete the Audit-C retrospectively for each decade of their life.

This information was used to categorise their lifetime drinking pattern:

  • never hazardous drinker
  • former early hazardous drinker – stopped before age 50
  • former later hazardous drinker – stopped at age 50 or after
  • current hazardous drinker
  • consistent hazardous drinker – during every decade of their life.

Researchers found that more than half of drinkers (56 per cent) had been hazardous drinkers at some point.

More than one fifth (21 per cent) were current hazardous drinkers and 5 per cent were consistent hazardous drinkers.

According to the study, former, later, current and consistent hazardous drinkers had higher systolic blood pressure and poorer liver function than never hazardous drinkers.

Current hazardous drinkers had three times greater risk of stroke, the researchers found, while former later hazardous drinkers had approximately two times higher risk of non-cardiovascular disease mortality compared with never hazardous drinkers.

Lifetime hazardous drinkers had larger waist circumferences and BMI than never hazardous drinkers, the study found.

Read more about ageing:

Former early hazardous drinkers on average had a waist 1.17cm larger than never hazardous drinkers, whereas former later hazardous drinkers, current hazardous drinkers and consistent hazardous drinkers had waist circumferences 1.88cm, 2.44cm and 3.85cm larger respectively.

Dr Ng Fat said: “This suggests that the longer adults engage in heavy drinking, the larger their waistline in older age.

“That is why it is beneficial, along with other health benefits, that adults reduce heavy drinking earlier rather than later.”


The research was carried out with the University of Cambridge and funded by the UK Medical Research Council, Alcohol Research UK and European Research Council.

Reader Q&A: Why does drinking alcohol trigger my anxiety?

Asked by: Natalie Richards, Leeds

The psychological effects of alcohol are complex – it can have both sedative and stimulating effects on the brain, causing either sleepiness or physical arousal. How this manifests from a subjective perspective depends a lot on your mental state at the time, as well as the broader social context.

While a drink can calm your nerves in some situations, lab research shows that it doesn’t help reduce fear of a threat or predicament that you know is coming. If anything, because alcohol can enhance our focus on the present moment, it could trigger your anxiety by making you more preoccupied with whatever you’re currently worried about. Alcohol can also accentuate anxiety by interfering with sleep and leaving you fatigued and feeling less able to cope.

Read more:


Amy BarrettEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.


Sponsored content