A Troubling Trend: Binge Drinking Is Up Among Older Women

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In the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” Grace, a 70-something businesswoman played by Jane Fonda, is often shown knocking back drinks. In fact, a wine glass is as much a part of the character’s wardrobe as are tailored pants and jaunty neck scarves.

For a time, a California wine company sold “MommyJuice,” and last month, Fox News shared a story with the headline “7 Signs You’re Hitting the Mommy Juice Too Hard.”

Who knew womanhood was a condition in need of alcohol—lots of it. Ironically, when people talk about binge drinking, the conversation most often turns to college students—or to young men.

iStock Photo.

Older people binge drink five to six times a month.

But there’s a large group of people who are excessively drinking under the radar: the grandmothers of those college students. A recent National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-funded study published said that in the last few years, binge drinking has increased significantly among women older than 60. From 1997 to 2014, binge drinking among older women increased by 3.7 percent each year. (Binge drinking among older men changed very little during the same time frame.)

The institute that funded the study defines binge drinking as a “pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or higher.” In general, for men that means the consumption of five or more drinks within two hours. For women, given their relatively smaller body mass, that typically means consuming four or more drinks during one drinking event.

Meeting friends at a bar? That’s an event. Settling in for a night watching movies? Another event. Hanging out in your multimillion-dollar beach house that you snagged in a divorce, as did the afore-mentioned Grace? That’s an event, too.

Binge drinking among older women may have mostly escaped researchers’ attention because it hasn’t registered as a public health issue—yet. Researchers say that most binge drinkers aren’t alcoholics. One in six Americans binge drink three or four times a month, but people age 65 and older binge drink more: five to six times a month.

But here’s the kicker: More than half of all alcohol consumed by American adults are consumed while bingeing. (An earlier report from the March of Dimes said that binge drinking is up among women of child-bearing years, as well.)

Binge drinking among older women is particularly troublesome in Connecticut. The state is on the cusp of a silver tsunami, which will present some interesting health care challenges. Already, Connecticut ranks in the top 15 oldest states in the nation, with 15.44 percent of its residents aged 65 and older. If trends continue, that means we’ll have more older residents who are drinking more, and with that will come health challenges that may be difficult or impossible to meet in our current budgetary free-fall.

Already, the impact of binge drinking is staggering. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the cost of excessive use of alcohol carried a tab of $249 billion in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. Most of those costs—77 percent—come from binge drinking, and costs include loss of productivity on the job, and health care and law enforcement expenses, said the center.

Public health officials point with concern to ads and screen depictions of bingeing women (see “Trainwreck,” which has its own drinking game; “Bridesmaids”; and the classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). These, they say, normalize what is an essentially harmful and expensive behavior.

Some companies have responded. That California winery has stopped marketing “MommyJuice,” but the long line of drunk women on screen continues.

Look: No one’s asking Grace to put down her glass, but until the marketing trend moves away from treating womanhood—older or otherwise—as a condition to be drowned with alcohol, we may be settling in for a long, boozy time.

Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.