It’s heartbreaking to watch a loved one slide down that slippery slope from social drinking to problem drinking to alcoholism — or to slide down it yourself. But did you know that this can happen to almost anyone, at almost any point in life? And women in midlife or beyond are certainly not immune.
But: Because many people do not realize this, it is easy for an older woman’s descent into addiction to go unrecognized until the problem is very advanced… or until a tragedy occurs.
When I interviewed psychologist Stephanie Brown, PhD, director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, California, she explained, “Aging brings new and different stresses that may cause a woman to turn to alcohol even if she did not do so in the past.”
Examples: In midlife, a woman may feel lonely when children leave home… disappointed if a career stalls… strained by providing care for elderly parents… or adrift if a marriage ends in divorce. Later in life, she may experience a sense of purposelessness or financial insecurity after retirement… anxiety about health problems… or grief when loved ones pass away.
Certain physiological factors of aging also contribute to a woman’s risk, according to the book Women Under the Influence from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Physical tolerance for alcohol diminishes as her lean muscle mass ebbs, metabolism slows, and liver and kidney function decline. This leaves an older woman with a higher blood alcohol level than a younger woman who drinks the same amount. Consequence: A level of drinking that appeared to be safe and moderate in earlier adulthood can become addicting as the years pass.
Some research has shown that women experience higher rates of late-onset alcoholism than men do, the CASA researchers reported, perhaps due to higher rates of stress. About half of all cases of alcoholism among older women begin after age 59 — compared with only one-fourth of cases among older men.
HOW ALCOHOL SUCKS WOMEN IN
A mature woman who honed her natural coping skills as a younger adult may be less likely to develop an alcohol problem than one who sometimes relied on outside substances to relieve stress. But even a woman who usually copes well can slide into abuse.
Dr. Brown explained, “It’s subtle, but sometimes a person just begins to turn toward alcohol. For instance, a woman accustomed to a daily glass of wine might notice that having a little more helps her feel better. She thinks, So what’s a little more?” Gradually the habit grows… until it is much more than a habit.
An alcoholic is drawn to alcohol the way a person is drawn to a lover — she feels excited when they are together and wants that experience every day. Once that love is established, the alcoholic makes lifestyle changes that allow her to drink more. She may socialize only with friends who enjoy drinking… bring wine to a party as a “gift” or carry little bottles in her purse to ensure that alcohol is available… or spend increasing amounts of time drinking alone at home. Despite this, she may insist that she does not have a drinking problem — because denial is a common characteristic of addiction.
Meanwhile, people around her may fail to recognize the situation. Reasons: An older woman’s drinking is less obviously disruptive to the family than it is when young children live at home. Doctors often neglect to screen older women for alcoholism — according to CASA researchers, only 17% of female patients age 65 and over said that their doctors asked about alcohol during a checkup. And when possible symptoms of alcohol abuse (memory problems, fatigue, headache, insomnia) are present, older women often are misdiagnosed with depression, anxiety or age-related cognitive decline. Result: Among the estimated two million American women over age 59 who might benefit from treatment for alcohol abuse, less than 1% receive such treatment.
SPOTTING THE WARNING SIGNS
Moderate drinking for women typically is defined as no more than one serving of alcohol per day — that’s 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor. But people in denial about their drinking may dismiss that limit as absurdly strict. Often this denial continues until — or even after — they pass out at a party, get arrested for drunk driving, wake up in a stranger’s bed or cause a serious accident.
But quantity doesn’t tell the whole story. Dr. Brown said, “Getting hooked psychologically is independent from the quantity of alcohol consumed. If that one drink per day becomes the focus of a person’s life or if she feels like she cannot enjoy dinner without a drink, that is a warning of psychological dependence.” Reason: The defining characteristic of addiction is loss of control — over when you drink… or how much you drink… or the way in which you think about drinking.
Bottom line: A woman should seek help from her doctor or a therapist if she frequently drinks more often or in greater quantity than she intended… or if she experiences cravings for or obsessive thoughts about alcohol. Does this describe you or a loved one? Remember that there is always hope — because just as a woman is never too old to develop a drinking problem, she is never too old to recover.