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In the course of a few generations, the country has seen striking shifts. Many would be deemed steps forward. We’ve elected record numbers of women to Congress. We’ve cracked cold cases with DNA. We’ve captured the first-ever image of a black hole.
We’ve taken steps backward, too. Case in point:
In decades past, people would generally do the bulk of their imbibing between their teenage years and early adulthood. As they grew older and more settled, they would “age out” of alcohol consumption.
Baby boomers, those born between 1946 to 1964, are bucking that trend. While there’s evidence that Americans in general are drinking too much, increases in older women’s drinking rates have drawn particular attention.
“People are very concerned about this apparent trend for the baby-boom generation — and probably generations after that — to not age out of alcohol use as earlier generations did,” says Sharon Wilsnack, a professor emerita in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota. “Typically, the pattern has been that alcohol use peaks when we’re in our late adolescent years, early 20s, and then people get married and take on full-time jobs. And that tends to kind of protect against heavy alcohol use for most people, if you’re not an alcohol-dependent person.”
April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Below, you’ll find recent research on women and drinking, as well as stories from Lily readers on why they stopped drinking.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
These days, researchers are giving much more consideration to women’s drinking habits. When Wilsnack began delving into the subject in the 1970s while writing her doctoral dissertation, virtually all studies were about men.
“Lots of women do get in trouble with alcohol, and I think that’s acknowledged certainly much more than it was when I started in this field, but I think it still bears saying that it’s not just a man’s problem, and we thought of it as a male problem for so long,” she says.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines high-risk drinking as having more than seven drinks per week or three drinks on a given day for women; for men, more than 14 drinks per week or four drinks on any given day is considered high-risk.
A September 2017 study, which analyzed data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, found that between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, there were increases in high-risk drinking and alcohol use disorder among all sociodemographic groups except Native Americans and rural residents.
The study found that high-risk drinking among women increased from 6 to 9 percent in that time period, while men’s high-risk drinking increased from 14 to 16 percent.
An analysis of National Health Interview Survey data from March 2017 found that among women ages 60 and older, the prevalence of binge drinking increased an average of nearly four percentage points per year between 1997 and 2014. In that same period, the prevalence of binge drinking among older men stayed relatively stable.
The bottom line: Experts say we should be concerned.
“So they’re going to reach a higher blood alcohol concentration,” she says. “That means that there’s more alcohol circulating in their system going to all the organ systems. And so we are more vulnerable to things like … alcohol-related liver disease.”
Between 2000 and 2015, deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in America increased 31 percent among people ages 45 to 64, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within that age group, deaths among women increased 57 percent, compared with a 21 percent increase in the death rate among men.
“The rate of alcohol-related visits to U.S. emergency departments increased by nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2014, especially among females and drinkers who are middle-aged or older,” Aaron White, senior scientific adviser to the director of the NIAAA, writes in an email.
Drinking presents unique risks as people age.
“As we get older, the sedative (sleep-inducing) effects of alcohol and its effects on balance and coordination increase,” White writes. “On a computerized test that requires speed, accuracy and attention, the equivalent of two or three drinks causes bigger impairments in people aged 55 to 70 than in people aged 25 to 35.”
He adds: “Increased sensitivity to the effects of alcohol on balance, attention and driving could contribute to injuries from falls and other sources. Further, research suggests that 4 out of 5 people ages 65-plus who consume alcohol also take a medication that could interact with alcohol.”
Researchers haven’t yet pinpointed the exact reasons why older women are consuming more alcohol. Men have always been known to drink more, but studies show women’s alcohol consumption is catching up.
“It makes sense that if gender gaps in drinking have been narrowing for over a century, then as each cohort ages, the differences in drinking between older men and women would be smaller,” White writes. “It is also becoming clear that the aging baby boomer cohort is bringing with it higher levels of alcohol and other drug use in general. Reasons why the increases are particularly large for women are not yet clear.”
In the September 2017 study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers wrote, “Drinking norms and values have become more permissive among women, along with increases in educational and occupational opportunities and rising numbers of women in the workforce, all of which may have contributed to increased high-risk drinking” and alcohol use disorder in the past decade.
Wilsnack conducted research in the 1990s that found women who drank heavily or engaged in dangerous alcohol-related behaviors — such as fighting after drinking or drinking and driving — often were sexually abused as children. Her team “found that it was one of the strongest predictors of later alcohol problems,” she says, adding that some other studies have looked at childhood sexual abuse and found “it’s also a predictor of things like depression, which can certainly lead to alcohol abuse in a predisposed person.”
Parsing the reasons for women’s drinking can be challenging — so too can spotting alcohol abuse in older adults.
“Older drinkers might be retired, live alone and socialize less,” White writes. “As a result, their drinking might have less of an impact on things like work attendance or school performance, missing out on activities, putting oneself in risky situations, etc. Spotting an alcohol use disorder among older drinkers can be harder because the signs are often less overt.”
The NIAAA has online resources to help people explore their relationship to alcohol and find treatment, if needed.
Wilsnack offers up a simple experiment to test one’s drinking habit: Try to go a month without alcohol.
“If it turns out that it really is very difficult to abstain,” she says, “then maybe you do need to see a professional person and explore the role that alcohol’s playing in your life.”