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Why are more older women turning to alcohol?

Retired? Lonely? Nothing to do?

Within the past five years, there has been a 65% rise in the number of older women treated for alcoholism, according to figures from Public Health England. The over 60's age bracket now makes up nearly 1 in 10 of all women undergoing a formal alcohol dependency programme.

The figures showed that overall, 2,276 women aged over 60 entered alcohol treatment in 2013-14 compared with 1,436 five years previously.

So what are the reasons behind this drastic rise in alcohol dependence?

Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Paul McLaren, from Priory Hospital Hayes Grove commented on the subject in the Daily Mail and explains further below...

"Many of the women I see are retired professionals who never had issues with alcohol in the past. A common pattern is for regular drinkers, who have had their consumption constrained by the structure of working, tipping into harmful drinking in retirement.

"Retirement, bereavement and loneliness can increase a person’s drive for alcohol. But the dangers of alcohol are increased among older drinkers, particularly because of medication, frailty, and other health problems. Heavy drinking is associated with a raised risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes. Alcohol can lead to brain damage. It is a powerful toxin that can damage every organ in the body and we are more susceptible to it as we get older.

"Older women don't necessarily fit the stereotypes people hold about alcohol misuse and they often keep their drinking hidden. Some are socialising more – which is wonderful – but of course that often revolves around taking alcohol, and some elderly people mistakenly believe they have built up an alcohol tolerance."

The real harm of alcohol

According to figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, during 2011/12 there were an estimated 1,220,300 admissions related to alcohol consumption where an alcohol-related disease, injury or condition was the primary reason for hospital admission or a secondary diagnosis.

Dr Patrick Mbaya, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Altrincham highlights the real harms of alcoholism.

"Women drinking around 35 units (approximately 3 and a half bottles of wine) per week are at a high risk of developing alcohol dependence syndrome and alcohol-related disease. When a syndrome of dependence develops, women may drink not because of the euphoric or relaxing effects of alcohol, but to avoid distressing withdrawal symptoms, like shakes, sweats, anxiety and vomiting, which are relieved by drinking alcohol."

Excessive drinking can cause the following:

  • Liver damage (for example fatty liver, hepatitis leading to cirrhosis)
  • Memory problems including dementia
  • Deterioration of mental health
  • Organ damage including the pancreas (inflammation of the pancreas) and the heart
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • Increased tolerance towards effects of alcohol
  • Headaches caused by dehydration

Getting help for a drinking problem

It is essential to get help at an early stage, before alcohol related harm or disease occurs.

But how do you know if you have a drinking problem?

  • Do you worry about where your next drink is coming from?
  • Do you find it difficult to stop drinking once you have started?
  • Do you suffer from withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, nausea and sweating?
  • Do you plan activities around alcohol?
  • Do you feel irritable if you don’t drink alcohol?
  • Do you drink to relieve stress?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above points, you may find the guidance below useful.

Five ways to deal with the first stages of alcohol dependence

  1. Admit that you have a problem
  2. Set daily goals for yourself, i.e. decide how many drinks you will limit yourself to and stick to it
  3. Be realistic and honest with yourself, friends and relatives about your problem
  4. Avoid temptations by removing or decreasing the amount of alcohol in your house
  5. Understand that you are not alone. There are many people going through a similar situation. Joining a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Talk to Frank could be a useful step towards recovery

This page was reviewed by Dr Paul McLaren (MBBS, FRCPsych, MA, BA, MSc),  Dr McLaren is a General Adult Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Priory Hospital Ticehurst House.

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