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EMOTIONAL WELLBEING

Why Women Over 50 Drink So Much

A bit daily is fine. Adaptive, even! But if you've been swigging from a seemingly bottomless glass, you might want to read this.



If you’re reading this, I’m betting you’re picking up your glass up a little more than you used to—and maybe it’s because the bastards are getting you down.

Is it bad that the first playlist I’ve got cued up on Spotify is called “Drinking Songs”? From country (Merle Haggard’s I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink) to rap (Snoop Dogg’s Gin & Juice) to Broadway (The ladies who Lunch, from "Company") to, well, everything written by Jimmy Buffet: I am a stan. The one that’s spoken powerfully to me recently is Rhianna’s Cheers(Drink to That)—and particularly this refrain:

Don't let the bastards get you down /

Turn it around with another round /

There's a party at the bar /

Everybody putcha glasses up.

If you’re reading this, I’m betting you’re picking up your glass up a little more than you used to—and maybe it’s because the bastards are getting you down.

We have a lot of reasons to want to be numb. Maybe they are uniquely personal. Or, maybe they are…everything. Covid and inflation rates are up. The market is down. Our right to make our own reproductive choices, something women have taken for granted since 1963, is very likely going away. Little kids are gunned down at school by a monster who’s barely more than a kid himself, while our politicians make frownie faces and do nothing.

Cheers!

So, it’s not entirely surprising that women—and particularly women in their 40s and 50s—are catching up to men in alcohol-related health problems. The CDC reports that between 2000-2015, the number of women 45-64 who died from cirrhosis and chronic liver disease increased by an astounding 57 percent. And a 2019 study in a neuroscience journal showed that the rates of "alcohol use disorder" have increased in women by 84 percent over the past ten years, whereas men’s rates have increased by merely 35 percent.

We women, we’re overachievers in everything.

Could these stats be egged along by the fact that over-indulging has been normalized, and in some ways gleefully celebrated?

Just look on Amazon. There are pages and pages of products that celebrate Moms getting soused: Wine tumblers etched with sayings like “Mom’s sippy cup” and “Mom juice”; t-shirts that read “Mama Needs some wine”, a book titled “The Big Book of Martinis for Moms” (which I only know about because my son got me a copy). And here’s a product that makes a fun baby shower present: alcohol testing strips for breast milk (yes, they exist).

Photo by Ananth Pai via Unsplash
Photo by Ananth Pai via Unsplash

Now, boozy women have been front and center in popular culture since Patsy and Edina sloshed into our consciousness in "Absolutely Fabulous." But perhaps there is a bit of a reckoning today, a sense of the increasing seriousness of our worshipping at the shrine of Chablis. "Single Drunk Female" is a show about a twenty-something in recovery; and for the older cohort, there is 50-something Miranda on "And Just Like That...": In Season 1, Miranda is hiding little vodka bottles the way she has been hiding her sexuality.

So, even if you consider yourself someone who can hold your liquor, if you're questioning whether or not you should down more than a 5-ounce glass of booze a day, let me share why you might not want to. For us women, it’s a question of hormones, fat, water content, and age.

What to Know About Alcohol If You're A Woman Over 50

First, women have much less of a particular enzyme in their stomachs that men do. This enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, metabolizes alcohol. Men metabolize about a third to a half of what they drink before it ever hits their bloodstream. Most women don't have that enzyme, or don’t have much of it. So, we absorb everything we drink directly through the stomach wall.

Water content in the body also plays a key role. Muscle has a higher water content than fat, and men generally have less fat and more muscle than women. Water dilutes the alcohol, so since women have less water in our system, a given dose of alcohol is more concentrated in the bloodstream.

And finally, there’s what I like to call the geezer factor: Tolerance for alcohol decreases with age. I could drink more 30 years ago than I can now, with far fewer side effects. Partially it’s because our total body fat content relative to our muscle tends to go up with time. But it's also because the aging brain becomes more sensitive to all drugs, including alcohol. It’s not entirely understood how and why, but there it is.

A 2016 study by social scientists at the University of Kent found that while alcohol clearly gives most of us a short-term happiness jolt, it does nothing to increase happiness over the long run and (shocker) adds to significantly decreased happiness level if drinking develops into a serious problem.

So, I can’t help wondering: Will I be less distressed by the world’s current state if I say no to my nightly one (or two or, who are we kidding, three) martinis?

This year, when I took the “Dry January” challenge, I lasted three days. It’s now summer, and I’m determined to try, or dry, again. It’s been a week. I’m doing OK. (Also helping: I’m avoiding the news.)

Now on heavy song rotation: Pink’s Sober. It’s a damn good song.


Judith Newman
Judith B. Newman is an American journalist and author. She writes about entertainment, relationships, parenthood, business, beauty, books, science, and popular culture. Her work has been featured in more than fifty publications, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Harper's, The Wall Street Journal, Allure (where she served as Contributing Editor) and Vogue. Newman's books include the 2004 memoir You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: The Diary of a New (Older) Mother, and To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness.

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