Risky drinkers? Us? Older women and alcohol

Wine Viktor Hanacek Picjumbo

Many of us might be surprised to know that Australian women aged 50 to 74 are more likely than younger women to exceed the safe drinking guideline of no more than two standard drinks on any one day.

In Western countries generally, since the 1970s middle-aged and older women’s drinking has increased considerably. Yet we don’t think alcohol guidelines apply to us.

In 2015 health researchers in Western Australia teamed up with some of their counterparts in Denmark to find out why.

They interviewed 49 women aged between 50 and 70 (25 in Denmark, 24 here) on their relationship to drinking. Most were married, employed and ‘middle-class’.

While almost 30 per cent of the Australian women drank daily, they didn’t see it as a problem because they weren’t rolling around drunk.

In our culture, we associate risky drinking with binge drinking or being out of control. As far as we’re concerned, if we’re holding things together, we’re drinking moderately.

The fact that we might be exceeding the recommended limit of 10 standard drinks a week is beside the point. A standard drink varies according to the strength of the alcohol, but for wine it’s 100ml.

The Heart Foundation has a useful illustration of what constitutes a standard drink. https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/bundles/healthy-living-and-eating/heart-healthy-drinks

As the WA/Denmark research showed, alcohol plays an interesting role in women’s lives.

Perhaps especially in Western countries, we use it for all sorts of reasons — to celebrate, connect with others, forget painful things or relax after a hard day.

In addition, women’s roles often seem to involve working our tails off, and for some the only release from that is to pour a drink. While we have a glass in our hand the rest of the world can take care of itself.

There’s also an element of freedom that goes with drinking. Most of us would remember that it took two women chaining themselves to the bar of Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel 55 years ago for women to be allowed to drink in public bars.

So there’s a feeling that we’ve paid our dues and we deserve to be able to relax, let our hair down a bit and treat ourselves.

These days drinking alcohol is not only normal and acceptable, there’s a lot to choose from and it’s readily available.

One of the Australian women from the WA/Denmark study pointed out that when she does her grocery shopping she can just wheel her trolley next door to the liquor outlet.

But amidst all this fun, freedom and relaxation we need an awareness that the safe drinking guidelines are based on evidence and exceeding them carries a risk.

Although the adverse effects are largely invisible, alcohol is still a carcinogen and it can contribute to diabetes and heart disease. Exercise and a healthy diet won’t cancel that out.

While we can’t change the culture, as individuals we might need to look at our own behaviour.

The challenge is to find other ways to relax and enjoy ourselves or do it on 10 standard drinks a week.

Photo Source: Viktor Hanacek, PicJumbo

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