Older women are drinking at risky levels and don’t feel the alcohol guidelines apply to them, a new study reveals.
Previous research has found "risky drinking" among older Australian adults is on the rise. The new study set out to explore why.
Older women have revealed why they drink and what they deem as ‘acceptable’ in a new study.Credit:Getty
In a collaboration between Edith Cowan University (ECU) and Denmark’s Aalborg University, the researchers interviewed 49 women aged between 50 and 70 about their drinking habits and attitudes towards alcohol.
“As well as the increased rates of drinking, women are more physiologically vulnerable to alcohol-related health risks so there is a potentially looming health issue,” said Dr Julie Dare from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences.
“You really need to understand why people adopt a particular health behaviour if you’re going to develop interventions that resonate with that group.”
She added: “This trend has been active for a while and it’s not just in Australia, it’s been happening in Denmark, in the US, in the UK, so it’s a western phenomenon.”
About 30 per cent of those interviewed drank every day, a quarter drank three to four times a week and “a number of those” consumed three to four drinks per day. The latest alcohol guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks a week.
The women interviewed said that drinking was “the norm” and “just something we do”. They said it is “easy to buy”, an enjoyable part of social occasions and, for some, a way to cope with stress.
The “overwhelming” attitude was that drinking to an acceptable level was not about how many drinks they had but whether or not they remained in control or appeared drunk.
One 69-year-old participant said: “As long as they [women] don't make a fool of themselves, they don't want to go falling down and showing their knickers, I just think that's … a very silly thing to do.”
Another 57-year-old added: “When you get to our age, you should be able to do pretty much what you want if it doesn't hurt other people and it's not too detrimental to you.”
“They didn’t bring up the guidelines,” Dare said. “The fact that the guidelines weren’t factoring into how they viewed acceptable moderate drinking is potentially concerning.”
Those who spoke about the health impacts of alcohol felt they could offset any risk by compensating with exercise or nutritious foods.
“It's probably not the best health choice that I have made in my life, but I always say I gave up smoking, and if I can't have a few drinks there's something wrong,” said one 61-year-old. “I exercise a lot and eat a healthy diet so I sort of justify that, but you know, well, I'm doing all these good things so I can have a couple of glasses of wine and it's not gonna hurt.”
Simone Pettigrew, from The George Institute for Global Health and a board member of The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), said older women grew up in a time when “less was known” about alcohol-related harms.
“It’s harder to change their minds when it’s an unwanted message and the adverse effects are largely invisible,” Pettigrew said. “Older women are more likely to have drunk during pregnancy, for example, so it is difficult for them to now come to terms with the fact that alcohol is a toxin.”
She added that, for many, there is a sense they have spent much of their lives serving others so they “deserve this time to let their hair down”.
Older women also don't relate to the media messaging around alcohol consumption, said Dare, who points out representations of risky drinking are often images of young drunk people sitting on the footpath or stumbling around outside.
“They said ‘we don’t do that, we don’t behave like that’,” Dare said. “The health promotion messages aren’t perhaps resonating because they’ve got this image in their mind that they’re not drinking in a way that increases their risk.”
Drinking does, however, increase risk regardless of how much is consumed or what other health behaviours are in place.
“Alcohol is a group one carcinogen (i.e., the relationship with cancer is certain), but most people don’t know this,” Pettigrew said. “There is no ‘safe’ dose.”
While there are social benefits to low-to-moderate drinking and, Dare said quoting a colleague, they are not suggesting “miserable abstention”, they want women to be aware that the alcohol guidelines are there based on evidence: “It is about acknowledging the potential risks.”
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