Harvard Health Blog
Binge drinking continues to rise — particularly among women and seniors
Women usually welcome news that the gender gap in pay or leadership positions is closing. But lately we’ve been learning that women are also gaining parity in another respect: alcohol consumption. A new study from researchers at the National Institutes of Health indicates that the rate of drinking in general, and binge drinking in particular, is rising faster among women ages 60 or older than among their male contemporaries.
When the researchers analyzed data from National Health Interview Surveys from 1997 through 2014, they found that the proportion of older women drinkers increased at a rate of 1.6% a year, compared with 0.7% for older men. Binge drinking (defined as imbibing four or more drinks within two hours) increased by 3.7% annually among older women, but held steady among older men. The results were reported online March 24, 2017, by Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The phenomenon isn’t unique to older women. “We worry about this in all age groups,” says Dr. Shelly Greenfield, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Kristine M. Trustey Endowed Chair in Psychiatry at McLean Hospital. “The gender gap has been narrowing over the last 20 years.” In several periodic surveys conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) as well as investigations funded by the National Institute of Health, converging evidence shows that since World War II, the percentage of women who abstain from alcohol has steadily fallen. At the same time, women have reported larger increases in both level of drinking and binge drinking compared with men. Some examples:
- In a single decade — from 2002 to 2012 — the proportion of women who drank rose from 44.9% to 48.3%, while the proportion of male drinkers fell from 57.4% to 56.1%.
- A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 2011 and 2013 indicated that 53.6% of women ages 18 to 44 were drinking, and 18.2% were binge drinking. The CDC followed up with an alert that three million US women were at risk of increasing the likelihood of sudden infant death syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
- According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the gender gap has closed among teens, with about 20% of 17-year-olds drinking regularly and 13% binge drinking.
Why the gap is closing
“There are many factors involved,” Dr. Greenfield says. Women born after World War II were more likely to go to college and join the workforce than before. As the stigma once attached to women’s drinking disappeared, more alcohol advertising and promotions were directed at women. In short, alcohol became more acceptable and accessible.
Whatever the reasons, the trend doesn’t bode well for women’s health. Because of biological differences, women have a higher blood alcohol concentration than men at any level of alcohol consumption, and are more likely to suffer the consequences of alcohol abuse. Binge drinking increases the risk of unintended pregnancies in younger women and susceptibility to assaults, serious injuries from falls, and traffic accidents in women of all ages. In the long term, consuming more than a drink a day increases the risk of liver disease, breast cancer, stroke, and osteoporosis.
What you can do
Most health authorities recommend that women limit their alcohol consumption to seven drinks a week, with no more than three drinks at one sitting. A drink is 1.5 ounce of spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.
The following may help you stay at that level.
- Gauge your glass. Measure the amount when you pour drinks at home. Some cocktails that seem like a single drink may contain several ounces of alcohol. “Generous” pours of wine may be the equivalent of two glasses.
- Sip slowly. Don’t start drinking alcohol when you’re thirsty. If you accompany each alcoholic drink with a glass of water or seltzer, you won’t be as likely to exceed the three-drink limit over an evening.
- Eat, too. When you accompany a drink with an appetizer or a meal, the alcohol is absorbed more slowly.
- Say “no, thanks.” Have a polite refusal ready when someone offers to refresh your glass or urges you to have another drink.
- Restrict when you drink. Try drinking only with friends or only a few days of the week. Limit the amount of alcohol you have in the house.
- Rethink your drinking. Examine the role alcohol plays in your life. The NIAAA website has tools to help you determine whether you’re drinking too much, and strategies for cutting down.
About the Author
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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