Glasgow Caledonian University researchers, who spoke to groups of friends in the Glasgow area, also concluded older revellers often rely on feeling changes to their bodies when deciding whether they had consumed enough alcohol, rather than heeding official advice on safe drinking levels.
Women in particular were more likely to stop drinking when they reach a certain level of intoxication, the study found, with participants saying they enjoyed the sensation of being 'in the zone', meaning they are more relaxed and chatty as a result of drinking, but aimed to stop before slurring, stumbling and sickness set in.
Dr Carol Emslie, leader of the university's Substance Use and Misuse Research Group, said the research, published in the journal Sociology of Health and Illness, could inform ways in which public health messages are conveyed.
However, charity Alcohol Focus Scotland, while saying the findings could be useful in informing how and why people drink, said it would be dangerous to put out a message that women can rely on 'how they feel' to minimise risk.
Dr Emslie, who co-authored the paper on the study, toured Glasgow pubs and placed adverts online to attract groups of up to six friends who were regular drinkers, aged between 30 and 50, to take part in the research.
She said: "This research was an attempt to learn more about the sensations, feelings and emotions people experience when they consume alcohol in midlife. When we asked participants about how they controlled the amount they drank, they described monitoring changes in their bodies, rather than counting units of alcohol.
"If we are trying to reduce alcohol-related harm, it is important we learn how people reach the conclusion not to slow down or stop on a night out."
Dr Emslie said the alcohol industry had already conducted research in the area - with a goal of shifting drinkers to other brands if they felt they had become bloated with quantities of beer or lager, and it was important for health professionals to catch up.
"Health promotion could build on our findings by focusing on 'sobering moments' - key points in the evening when people reassess how they feel and decide to slow down or stop drinking - so helping people to avoid the 'point of no return' with the accompanying short-term and possible long-term damage to health," she added. "It's about getting the balance between communicating levels of drinking that are harmful but also acknowledging that people experience drinking as a really important part of their life and it is pleasurable."
Other key findings were that middle-aged drinkers often associate alcohol with relaxation, reward and temporary release from work and childcare responsibilities.
The study concluded that further research was needed to find ways in which to encourage drinkers to draw on physical cues to slow down or stop drinking, potentially minimising harmful levels of alcohol consumption.
Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "We know that even low levels of alcohol consumption carry some risk. For example, evidence suggests having 1 drink a day - around 1.5 units - could increase the risk of breast cancer by 5%. Health promotion efforts should aim to raise awareness across the population about the range of short and long-term health risks associated with alcohol."