• Abstainers;
  • alcohol;
  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • J-shaped association;
  • longditudinal study


Aims  To determine the nature of the association between alcohol consumption and symptoms of anxiety and depression in women.

Design  Prospective cohort study of women (n = 4527) who received antenatal care at a major public hospital (Mater Misericordiae Hospital) in South Brisbane between 1981 and 1984 and who have follow-up data on alcohol use, depressive and anxiety symptoms over a 14-year period.

Findings  At the 5-year follow-up there was a ‘J-shaped’ association between alcohol consumption and both symptoms of depression and of anxiety. However, at the baseline assessment and the 14-year follow-up alcohol consumption was linearly and positively associated with depressive symptoms with increasing prevalence of symptoms with greater consumption. At the 5-year follow-up the prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms among those who were abstainers at both baseline and 5-year follow-up was similar to that among those who had been previous drinkers and then become abstainers (P = 0.67). Similarly, the prevalence of these symptoms was the same at the 14-year follow-up comparing those who had been abstainers at baseline, 5-year and 14-year follow-up to those who had previously consumed alcohol but were then abstainers.

Conclusions  The nature of the association between alcohol consumption and symptoms of depression and anxiety may vary across their life course in women. Previous drinkers who become abstainers do not appear to be at any higher risk of symptoms of depression or anxiety compared to those who always abstained, suggesting that increased symptoms in abstainers at age 30 is not due to ‘sick quitters’. The association of high alcohol consumption with symptoms of depression and anxiety may be confounded by low income and smoking.