Whether it’s another couple glasses of wine with dinner, a few more cocktails at social functions or get-togethers, or another nip or two to go to sleep at night, aging Americans have been drinking more – and older women are at the front of the trend.
A recent study found that, while the percentage of both men and women over 60 years of age who drink has increased from patterns observed 20 years ago, drinking among older women is advancing at a pace that is noteworthy. Not only did the percentage of women drinkers from the baby boomer generation outgrow that of their male counterparts in recent years, but binge drinking among women from 1997-2014 grew at nearly 3 times the rate it did in men.
The study, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, collected data on more than 65,000 men and women aged 60 and older. Within that group, the number who were current drinkers (defined as those consuming 12 or more drinks in any one year in their lifetime and one or more drinks in the past year) grew about 5 percent among men and a notable 10 percent in women. When it came to binge drinking – a tendency to consume four to five drinks in one day – the pattern grew more than one percent among males, while it jumped nearly four percent among females.
These study results are significant for a couple of reasons.
First, the number of older Americans is increasing steadily, suggesting that if the drinking patterns identified in this research holds, more and more individuals may consume alcohol in an unhealthy way – driving up the demand for treatment. Data from the US Census Bureau showed that there are 76.4 million baby boomers (those adults born between 1946 and 1964) –and the numbers of younger citizens is not sufficient to replace them. What’s more, the oft-discussed treatment gap – the percentage of U.S. residents who currently need, but fail to receive treatment – is already troubling. As such, we may see a future in which need continues to outpace available, or provided, treatment services.
Second, heavier drinking has historically been male-dominated territory. But this research shows that women are beginning to change the trend line. Because women do not tolerate alcohol nearly as well as men and given that they have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels, accidents, longer-term health troubles, and addiction rates may grow among this population at a disturbing rate.
An interesting question, but one that this study does not specifically address, is why we’re seeing this increase among women specifically. Another study offers some possible explanations that make a great deal of sense.
First, it notes that women typically live longer than men. Consequently, many women outlive their spouses and spend 10 or more years living alone. In addition, divorced and empty nesting women are susceptible to suffering severe depression and anxiety due to feelings of loneliness, grief, and an inability to navigate substantial changes in daily living routines. These stressors and emotions may increase the likelihood that women self-medicate with alcohol. And living in a society that seems obsessed with staying young, may increase feelings of stigmatization, marginalization, or low self-worth among aging women. Again, the feelings of displacement and lack of value may well fuel additional drinking behavior.
Study author Rosland Breslow noted that alcohol could have severe consequences, especially for older men and women.
“Too much drinking increases your chances of being injured or even killed,” Breslow said. “Alcohol is a factor, for example, in about 60 percent of fatal burn injuries, drownings and homicides; 50 percent of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults; and 40 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and fatal falls.”
Heavy alcohol consumption also contributes to a greater risk of several diseases, including those of the heart and liver. It can disturb sleep, contribute to depression, and increase the risk of many cancers. Other chronic conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, can also be exacerbated by alcohol use in heavy drinkers. Alcohol abusers also often neglect to eat properly, which can lead to mineral and vitamin deficiencies bordering on malnutrition.
Breslow said that women over 65 should not have more than three drinks in a day or seven drinks per week, as their physiology just can’t handle high levels of alcohol. Due to the interplay of hormones and uniquely female biological elements, women experience higher blood alcohol and impairment levels than men after having the same number of drinks and the same kind of alcohol. In other words, women are simply more sensitive to alcohol than men. Unfortunately, this sensitivity increases with age.
Age, mental health status, and inherent sensitivity to alcohol sometimes makes it harder for older women to abstain from drinking alcohol than men their own age. The severity of withdrawal symptoms–nausea and vomiting, fever, overwhelming anxiety, depression, and joint pain – often forces older women who are attempting to quit to return to alcohol rather than suffer painful symptoms.
Alcohol-fueled imbalances in brain chemistry provoke excessive neuronal activity in the brain when alcohol is withheld. This activity is so severe and atypical that a woman’s nervous system suffers dysregulation of electrical impulses sent from the brain into the body. Consequently, older women alcohol abusers could experience seizures without proper medical supervision during detox.
Although older women may feel they are adults who have earned the “right” to drink now that they may be retired or have less regular family responsibilities, a report studying binge-drinking women and men in their 50s and 60s found that older women and their male counterparts had an “increased risk of dying over a 20-year period” compared to moderate, non-binge drinkers of the same age. If you have an older friend or loved one who has started to drink to excess and is having trouble stopping, call us at 540-535-1111. We regularly treat older adults who may have slipped into abusive patterns of drinking due to sudden lifestyle changes, trauma, and loss. We’d love to help get them started on a path to healthy sober living!