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Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

A recent article in the London-based newspaper The Daily Mail reports that the number of older women seeking treatment for alcohol problems in Great Britain has risen an astonishing 65 percent in the past five years, even though overall rates of alcohol abuse have been dropping.

A book we reviewed earlier this year, Her Best-Kept Secret, which focused on U.S. women, indicates that drinking is on the rise here as well. Both sources point to similar factors that may be contributing to the problem.

Social changes are primary. Today there is less stigma attached to the idea of women’s drinking than there used to be—and those who are still self-conscious about it can drink at home. Many women are indulging alone, a practice aided by the easy availability of home delivery.

Older women are especially vulnerable to increased alcohol abuse for a number of reasons. The Daily Mail article quotes psychiatrist Paul McLaren: “A common pattern is for regular drinkers, who have had their consumption constrained by the structure of working, tipping into harmful drinking in retirement. Many of the women I see are retired professionals who never had issues with alcohol in the past.”

Also relevant is the fact that women are more susceptible to depression than men. A study, “Use and Misuse of Alcohol in Older Women, by Frederic C. Blow and Kristen Lawton Barry, points out that “Older women tend to have longer life expectancies and to live alone longer than men, and they are less likely than men in the same age group to be financially independent. These physical, social, and psychological factors are sometimes associated with at-risk drinking in older adulthood, so they are especially relevant for older women.”

Women who outlive their spouses may face years, if not decades, of life without a partner. Loneliness is often a factor in their abuse of alcohol. As the long evenings stretch ahead, one drink leads to two, and so on. There are no children or husband around to care for, so what does it matter, a woman may reason, if she is not at the top of her game?

That a woman drinks alcohol every day is not necessarily a problem; what is crucial is the amount she consumes. As we women age, our susceptibility to the effect of alcohol increases. Here is an explanation from the Blow and Barry study noted above

Older women have major physical risk factors that make them particularly susceptible to the negative effects of increased alcohol consumption [Blow, F. Substance Abuse Among Older Adults, 1998]. Women of all ages have less lean muscle mass than men, making them more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. In addition, there is an age-related decrease in lean body mass versus total volume of fat, and the resultant decrease in total body mass increases the total distribution of alcohol and other mood-altering chemicals in the body. Both men and women experience losses in lean muscle mass as they age, but women have less lean muscle mass than men throughout adulthood and, therefore, are less able to metabolize alcohol throughout their lives, including into older adulthood (see Blow 1998 for further information). Liver enzymes that metabolize alcohol and certain other drugs become less efficient with age, and central nervous system sensitivity increases with age for both genders. In sum, compared with younger adults, and with older men, older women have an increased sensitivity to alcohol.

Furthermore, an older woman cannot consume more than one drink without significant health risks, and the dangers of drinking increase along with her age. While almost every system in the body is affected by alcohol, a woman’s risk for breast cancer (which peaks between ages 60 to 64) goes up 7 to 11 percent for every unit of alcohol consumed. Also increased are her risks for high blood pressure and type II diabetes. And of course, heavy drinkers are always more likely to experience liver damage and cognitive changes.

One of the problems facing health care professionals is identifying who may have a problem. Older women don’t fit the stereotype of hitting the bottle, and they are likely to hide their drinking out of shame. And, as I pointed out above, it doesn’t take all that much for a woman to drink past a healthy limit. Professionals and family members need to be alert to signs that alcohol abuse may be occurring.
 

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Problems in Older Women

  • Anxiety
  • Increased tolerance to alcohol or medications
  • Depression, mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Disorientation
  • New difficulties in decision-making
  • Poor hygiene
  • Falls, bruises, burns
  • Family problems
  • Idiopathic seizures (i.e., seizures with an unknown origin or cause)
  • Financial problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • Social isolation
  • Incontinence
  • Poor nutrition

SOURCE: “Use and Misuse of Alcohol Among Older Women.” Box adapted from Barry, et al., 2001.

Helping someone you know with a suspected drinking problem can be very tricky. Your input can be unwelcome, to say the least, especially if a woman is being covert about it or doesn’t realize or admit to herself that she is drinking too much. A friend of mine did not realize that her mother was abusing alcohol until her caretaker quit abruptly one day with a torrent of complaints in Russian; the only word she recognized (repeated with particular alarm) was “Smirnoff!!!”

For anyone who has a drinking problem, AA, psychotherapy, or even rehab may be necessary in order to overcome it, though many people do quit on their own. Older people may require a specialized program, particularly if they have health problems. For the somewhat younger “woman of a certain age” who is still healthy and vital, it is paramount to get a handle on this as early as possible. Alcohol abuse is correlated with poor quality of life in all demographics, but hits aging women, who have less financial support and face more physical vulnerability, particularly hard. Drinking too much is one obstacle that can and should be avoided in our effort to live a healthy, fulfilling lives as we age.

 

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  • Patty Verner December 13, 2014 at 11:57 am

    I love WVFC!!

    Reply
  • Agigail congdon December 4, 2014 at 7:52 am

    This is a very informative, helpful post, thank you.
    I will keep it in my health file for future reminding as I get older and to have available for friends who have concerns about themselves or those they love..
    Thanks all! Abigail

    Reply