A provocative study authored by epidemiologist Dr. Rosalind Breslow of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicates that more older woman are binge drinking today than ever before. Data collected on over 65,000 women and men who were at least 60 years old and considered themselves “current drinkers” took Breslow by surprise. “My colleagues and I discovered that the rate of older female drinkers increased by two percent each between 1997 and 2014 while the rate of older male drinkers increased by only one percent between 1997 and 2014” The question is why?
Another study by the NIAAA suggests that older women may be at high risk for alcohol abuse for several reasons:
- Women live longer than men. Consequently, many women outlive their husbands and spend 10 years or more living alone.
- Divorced or widowed women are susceptible to suffering severe depression and anxiety due to living alone, living in poverty and experiencing reduce quality of life due to physical/mental disorders
- Living in a youth-obsessed, somewhat patriarchal society increases feelings of stigmatization, marginalization and lack of control over their lives among older women.
Additionally, a woman’s physiology at any age makes them more vulnerable to the psychoactive and physical effects of alcohol abuse. 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.
Older women who abuse alcohol can expedite health issues associated with aging and poor lifestyle choices, such as:
- Breast cancer
- Liver disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive difficulties
Alcohol abusers often neglect to eat properly, which can lead to mineral and vitamin deficiencies bordering on malnutrition. Even older women drinkers who do receive adequate amounts of food may show signs of malnutrition due to alcohol damaging stomach cells involved in digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Disturbances in heart rhythm due to alcohol abuse may generate heart arrhythmias in older women serious enough to interrupt heart contractions. Heart failure is seen more frequently in chronic or older drinkers who already suffer alcohol-caused deterioration of their major organs.
Blocks to Stopping
Age, current mental health status and inherent sensitivity to alcohol 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–forces many older women who attempt to self-detoxify to return to abusing alcohol.
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 detoxification.
Although older women may feel they have earned the “right” to drink when they want to, 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.