Rise of Alcohol Use Disorders in Older Women

Older Woman standing on a deck of a ship contemplating Alcohol Use Disorders in Older Women

Contributor: Staff of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

When it comes to alcohol misuse and abuse disorders, many people may generally assume that this is something that commonly affects younger populations, including college students who are more prone to social drinking. However, this stigma overlooks the specific population of older women, who may be at increased for alcohol use disorders, specifically women age 65 and older.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), many of the chronic and acute medical and psychiatric conditions that lead to high rates of health care use by older individuals are influenced by the consumption and misuse of alcohol [1].

This may include but is not limited to liver disease, cardiovascular complications, major depression, harmful medication interactions, memory issues, sleep disorder, and cognition changes.

Higher Risk of Alcohol Use Disorders in Older Women

What risk factors might specifically put older women at increased risk for alcohol problems or misuse? In general, women have higher life expectancies than men, with females expected to live an average of eight years longer than males [2].

Some women who are widowed or perhaps living alone as they age may be more prone to social, physical, and psychological risk factors that increase susceptibility to alcohol misuse.

One particular study of moderate to heavy alcohol consumption among older adults found a connection between participants who reported poorer psychosocial functioning with higher alcohol intake [3].

Woman workingThe process of aging itself can lower the body’s overall tolerance for alcohol and increase sensitivity to drinking. Older women who may already have pre-existing health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or mood disorders, may worsen their health conditions by misusing alcohol.

It is also important to consider social factors and life transitions that may increase an older woman’s susceptibility to alcohol misuse. Losing a spouse or loved one, having decreased interaction with family members, retiring from the workforce, limited mobility or suffering with a physical illness can also be life structural changes that increase a desire to drink or use alcohol as an escape.

Barriers to Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorders in Older Women

Sadly, many older women who struggle with alcohol abuse or misuse may be overlooked, as there are currently many barriers they face to accessing treatment. Unlike other population groups, older women are often overlooked as being at risk for alcohol use disorders and may have less age-specific treatment options that may be appropriate for addressing challenges faced at their life stage.

Many older women who struggle with alcohol use disorders may not believe that anything is significantly wrong to warrant treatment interventions or may not see a healthcare provider frequently enough to recognize a problem or potential consequences.

Loved ones of older women, particularly of older women who are living alone, may be key for identifying red flags that are indicative of a more serious issue related to alcohol use.

Signs of alcohol use disorders or alcoholism in older women may include but are not limited to:

  • Recurring injuries falls, or accidents
  • Severe decline in cognition
  • Self-care neglect or deficits
  • Noncompliance with medical appointments, prescription protocols, or treatment
  • Social isolation or estrangement from loved ones
  • Health concerns, such as gastrointestinal distress
  • Frequent visits to the emergency department
  • Unstable blood pressure
  • Frequently smell of alcohol and/or collection of empty alcohol bottles
  • Fluctuations in weight and/or appetite

These signs and symptoms should not be ignored and may indicate a more severe problem is at hand. Alcohol use disorders can cause a host of complications, including nutritional deficiencies, co-occurring psychiatric illnesses, and worsening pre-existing health conditions.

Connecting to Comprehensive Care

For an older woman who is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, connecting to professional care is essential for recovery, beginning with the identification of the problem. Treatment options may vary depending on the severity of the alcohol use disorder.

Woman near beachIn some cases, a phase of detoxification may be necessary, and all options should be considered with a specialized treatment team. Following detoxification, options for treatment may range from community-based groups to day treatment to outpatient therapy or even inpatient programs.

Age-specific 12 step programs may also be helpful for the older woman who is working toward overcoming an alcohol use disorder.

Family and loved ones may play an important role in the identification and early intervention of alcohol issues in older women. Taking quick action and connecting to professionalized support as soon as the problem is identified can help improve the overall prognosis.


[1]: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Use and Misuse of Alcohol Among Older Women”, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-4/308-315.htm Accessed 29 July 2017
[2]: “Life expectancy—care quality indicators”. QualityWatch. Nuffield Trust & Health Foundation. Accessed 29 July 2017
[3]: GRAHAM, K., and SCHMIDT, G. Alcohol use and psychosocial well–being among older adults. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 60:3

Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.

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Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 4, 2017
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 12, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.