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J Women Aging. 2007;19(1-2):31-48.

Women, aging, and alcohol use disorders.

Author information

  • 1Center of Alcohol Studies, Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA. bepstein@rci.rutgers.edu


The increase in prevalence rates of alcohol use disorders in younger versus older cohorts of female drinkers is many times higher than the corresponding increase in prevalence rates for male drinkers. Thus, the number and impact of older female drinkers is expected to increase over the next 20 years as the disparity between men's and women's drinking rates decrease. Due to differences in metabolism of alcohol, women of all ages compared to men are at higher risk for negative physical, medical, social, and psychological consequences associated with at-risk and higher levels of alcohol consumption. Aging women face new sets of antecedents related to challenges in the middle and older adult phases of life, such as menopause, retirement, "empty nest," limited mobility, and illness. As women age, they are subject to an even greater physiological susceptibility to alcohol's effect, as well as to a risk of synergistic effects of alcohol in combination with prescription drugs. On the other hand, there is mixed research indicating that older women may benefit from the buffering effect of low levels of alcohol on hormonal declines associated with menopause, perhaps serving as a protective factor against Coronary Heart Disease and osteoporosis. However, with heavier drinking, these benefits are either reversed or eclipsed. In addition, any alcohol consumption increases the risk for breast cancer in older women. The possible beneficial effects of alcohol must be weighed with the fact that the research does not typically establish causality, that low-risk drinking equates to one standard drink per day, that there is a risk of progression towards alcohol dependence, and that there are alternate methods to gain the same benefits without the associated risks. Older women also experience unique barriers to detection of and treatment for alcohol problems. Current treatment options specifically for older women are limited, though researchers are beginning to address differential treatment response of older women, as well as development of elder women-specific treatment approaches. Treatment options include self-help/mutual peer support, which provides ancillary advantages, brief interventions in primary care settings, which have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing drinking levels, and cognitive behavioral techniques, which have been demonstrated to be useful; but more studies and larger samples are needed. Elder-specific treatments need to be appropriate in terms of content, to address the challenges associated with life stage, such as the loss of the parental role and widowhood, and in terms of process, such as delivery in a respectful therapeutic style and at a slower pace. Future directions in research should address the lack of assessment instruments, the risks of simultaneous use of alcohol and prescription medications, and the under-representation of older women in randomized trials of alcohol treatments.

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