The Normalization of Excess Alcohol Use Among Older Women

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Alcohol use among women is rising, and the rate of women who drink alcohol in excess of current health guidelines is rising too. This trend is persistent, even though heavy drinking tends to be more problematic for women. As more and more research demonstrates the health risks of alcohol use, evidence continues to emerge that women face unique risks, increased rates of infertility, disruption of menstrual cycles, and, for pregnant women, a significantly elevated risk of miscarriage. Binge drinking is also a significant risk factor for sexual assault.

Older Women Face Unique Health Concerns

For older women, fertility is no longer a concern. But there is evidence of a host of unique concerns, including an elevated risk of some cancers and even premature death. Excessive drinking carries with it an increased risk of liver disease – and that risk is higher for women than for men. The data also shows that alcohol use may result in memory loss and shrinkage of the brain. Here again, the risk is more pronounced for women than for men, with more severe damage observed in women, and with adverse effects appearing after shorter periods of heavy drinking than was observed in men.

These risks are concerning to say the least.

Yet, despite the data, a recent study revealed that among women aged 50-70, alcohol use is actually on the rise.

Social and Cultural Factors

If more older women are drinking in excess of the amount that medical guidelines recommend, why might this be the case?

Social and cultural factors are at play.

While each individual is different, humans are influenced by the behavior, habits, and attitudes of their peers. The data reflects that cultural attitudes toward alcohol use by women have changed in recent decades, and continue to evolve. Historically, in many cultures, alcohol use by women was stigmatized. In the United States, for example, the temperance movement was started by women, and frequenting saloons or bars was seen as behavior appropriate for men rather than women.

But increasingly, popular culture and social media influence our social and cultural mores. Posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram make light of drinking among women. “Mommy needs Wine” memes abound. In comedy, film and television, depictions of alcohol use and even binge-drinking as comical and normal have doubtless contributed to the increasing social acceptance of excess alcohol use by women, including older women.

New Data on Drinking

It may also be that information regarding the health risks of excess drinking is not readily available. Many doctors don’t inquire about exact levels of alcohol consumption in the course of a regular physical. Absent major red flags, such as driving while intoxicated, drinking above recommended levels would have to be self-reported – and many patients may not know that they consume more than the recommended amount. They may consider themselves as social drinkers who occasionally have a few too many, without major consequences or cause for concern.

A recent study led by Dr. Julie Dare examined this trend among middle-aged and young-old women around the world. Dr. Dare and her researchers found that accurate information about the health risks of alcohol consumption was lacking as a factor in guiding the choices these women made around alcohol use. Instead, women seemed guided largely by the cultural acceptability around alcohol consumption. Drinking was described as “part of the norm” and something to do with family and friends. Concerns about excessive drinking seemed to center around perceived loss of control. As long as women “don’t make a fool of themselves” or “go falling down and showing their knickers,” their drinking was considered acceptable.

Study authors also noted that drinking among younger women is starting to decline. However, the percentage of women over the age of 60 who regularly drink in excess of current health recommendations continues to increase.

Stigma, Shame, and Seeking Help

The lack of stigma around women’s consumption of alcohol can be perceived as positive, since stigma can lead to shame. Shame can be a barrier that prevents people from seeking help for alcohol or substance use disorders, and is therefore counterproductive in terms of changing behavior.

Yet the data seem to indicate that older women are putting their health and well-being at risk, and may experience increased social and healthcare costs down the line.

So: what do we do with this information?

One simple answer is to share it. We can use our knowledge to raise awareness of the risks of excessive consumption. We can offer help and support to friends or loved ones who may be at-risk. And we can also educate everyone – not just older women – about the benefits of cutting back, moderate consumption, or abstaining from alcohol altogether.