How much alcohol do you drink, and what’s “normal”?

More than 3,000 Saga customers reveal the truth about their drinking habits, and our expert explains why many of us resist cutting down.

“Everybody likes a drink,” said the UK’s first ever sensible drinking campaign in 1974. It seems you agree: 90% of Saga customers drink alcohol, which is higher than the population at large (80%). Half (51%) of our drinkers do it three to four times a week or more, with 13% enjoying a tipple every day.  

Mixed race group on a beach doing cheers with glassesCredit: Shutterstock

In fact, a fair proportion of Saga customers probably wish they were back in the 1970s, when the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested an entire bottle of wine a day “constitutes reasonable guidelines of the upper limit of drinking”.


5% of women like real ale 

Half of our drinkers admit consuming more than six units of alcohol in one sitting (just over half a bottle of wine or two pints of 5% beer). That’s called binge drinking in modern medical parlance, although in 1979 it clearly just represented a solid start to the evening.  

Men are our most enthusiastic drinkers by some margin, with those in their sixties getting through the largest amount – 12% drink more than 30 units a week, as do 10% of men in their seventies. A sizeable 38% of male respondents drink more than the Government’s “low risk” guideline of 14 units a week, as do 21% of women.  

Dr Beth Bareham, researcher in older age drinking at Newcastle University, isn’t surprised.

57% of men drink three-plus days a week

“We see higher levels of alcohol consumption in the baby boomer generation than any previous generation,” she says. “It’s very much ingrained in people’s social activities but also in what it means to relax. You also have to recognise that the recommendations for lower risk drinking have changed so much – we’ve gone from 30 units a week to 21 and down again to 14.”

Little wonder that those like Dr Bareham, who’d like to get the heavier drinkers among us to cut down, often hit a brick wall; many don’t want to hear about recent research on the risks of alcohol, including the link to some cancers (especially breast, bowel and mouth/throat) – things we didn’t know in 1979.

“It can be better to think about what you gain from cutting back rather than what you lose,” she says. “If you’re struggling with weight or arthritis, both can improve from cutting down.”

Because our tolerance for alcohol falls as we age and the risks are higher, some countries, such as Italy, have even introduced lower guidelines for older people of one small drink a day.  

If you’d like to cut down (14% of our respondents think they drink too much), one of the most effective ways is to consider in real time how much pleasure each drink is giving you – so-called “mindful drinking”.

“It’s often a no-brainer to have that first drink but often by the third it’s not going to achieve anything positive for you,” says Dr Bareham.  

As to Saga customers’ tipple of choice, wine emerged as the clear favourite, with 49% saying red wine was their preferred drink. The top five varied by sex. When asked to choose up to three drinks, 56% of men named red wine as their favourite, 35% picked white wine, 34% lager/craft beer, 30% real ale and 21% whisky. For women, the favourite was white wine (51%), followed by red wine (43%), gin (36%), sparkling wine/champagne (24%) and lager/craft beer (12%).


36% sometimes feel drunk

Why do we like wine so much? There’s some evidence that older taste buds are more suited than younger ones to its charms. One study in Spain found that those aged over 55 were more able to perceive – and hence appreciate – the smoky and peppery aromas in red wine than those in the 18-35 age group.

However, there appears to be a sweet spot: other research has found that those over 90 can find their sense of smell and taste declines – so if you’ve been saving a fine vintage, don’t wait too long before getting out the corkscrew.


Written by Rachel Carlyle