Baby Boomers & Alcoholism: The “Civilized” Abuse of Wine

Couple embracing

Even though the millennial are often subjected to stigma for their unhealthy drinking patterns, an unrecognized and silent storm is emerging among the older people as they go through life-altering events such as retirement, losing the purpose of life or losing a loved one.

It is widely understood that the elderly drink moderately, and it usually doesn’t occur to anybody to monitor their intake or discourage them from enjoying a glass of wine while relaxing with family or friends.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking among seniors age 50 and older is rapidly expanding. In fact, drinking among this population has been increasing the most.

A survey reported 15 percent of senior men and 12 percent of senior women to have drunk more than the limit recommended by the NIAAA on a daily basis. [1]

Sunspire Health


The “Civilized” Abuse and Its Triggers

A standard drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80–proof distilled spirits.

Yet, it may be quite easy to exceed that limit on a daily basis. Most often, the elderly may be consuming greater amounts of alcohol than those recommended because they may exaggerate the health benefits of wine in their minds.

The cancer-fighting antioxidants and the enhancing of “good bacteria” through wine, and reducing stress or loneliness through ‘moderate’ drinking and socializing may not seem such bad ideas.

Senior standing in the grassCarol Colleran, the author of “Aging and Addiction,” explains that such claims facilitate a stealthy pattern of alcohol abuse and it becomes easier to overlook this.

Colleran further elaborated that the specific risks of alcoholism for individuals older than 50 expanded beyond the conventional realms of family, work, and financial issues.

They are mostly based upon self-medication for physical pains, loneliness, boredom, and depression. An underlying trigger, which is probably the most important one for this age group, is the loss of meaning and purpose in life.

Colleran, in her experience as a former chemical dependency counselor for the Minnesota-based Hazelden treatment centers and the recently retired director of Florida’s Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery, has encountered numerous addicted older retirees who reiterated the same reasoning of losing their sense of purpose and importance.

Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer for Hazelden, further reinforces this reasoning by elaborating how it may not essentially be the emotions involved in these transitions of entering retirement that pose a higher risk for alcoholism, but the change of routine is itself a trigger.[2]

Older Women at Greater Risk of Alcoholism

Physiologically, women are also at greater risk for alcohol–related health problems as they age.  Numerous critical and chronic medical and psychiatric conditions in older people are influenced by the consumption of alcohol.  These conditions include:

  • Medication interactions
  • Injury
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Liver disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cognitive deterioration
  • And sleep disruptions.

Older women may be especially prone to alcohol disorders as they are more likely to outlive their spouses and experience losses that may lead to loneliness and depression.

Women, regardless of age, have lower lean muscle mass in comparison to men, exposing them to greater sensitivity toward the effects of alcohol. Lean body mass versus total volume of fat also decreases with age.

Both men and women experience this reduction in lean muscle mass as they age, which is why they have a diminishing ability to metabolize alcohol throughout their lives, especially into older adulthood.

Woman struggling with mental health issues

Furthermore, liver enzymes that metabolize alcohol and certain other drugs become less efficient with age, and central nervous system sensitivity increases with age for both genders.

Conclusively, compared to young adolescents and older men, older women have a greater sensitivity to alcohol.

Owing to these reasons among others, alcohol use recommendations for older women are overall lower than those for older men and younger women. [3]

Quantity Over Frequency

A recent study assessed the implications of moderate and heavy drinking among the elderly. Diminished psycho-social functioning was reported by the participants, in the face of increasing daily alcohol consumption.

The frequency of drinking per week, however, was not related to psychosocial well–being. It demonstrated the amount of alcohol consumed to be a more significant factor in impaired functioning.

According to Ensrud and colleagues (1994), older women with a history of frequent alcohol use had a 2.2 times greater likelihood to develop discrepancies in their daily activities compared to those with no history of regular alcohol use.

In fact, alcohol use was more closely associated with impairment than smoking, aging, anti-anxiety medication, or stroke. [3]

Treatment and Prevention

Research shows that one-third of the elderly alcoholics develop a problem with alcohol in later life, while the remaining two-thirds grow older with the medical and psychosocial ramifications of early-onset alcoholism. [4]

Several approaches are recommended for effective treatment of older women and men with alcohol problems.

These include cognitive behavioral approaches, group–based approaches, individual counseling, medical intervention, family therapy and inclusion, community–centered services and outreach, and alcohol rehab.

Man on the shoreThe expanding population of older adults is representative of the need for fresh, innovative prevention and intervention approaches to treat and prevent alcoholism amongst the baby-boomers.

It is vital for these approaches to incorporate sensitivity and specification regarding elder–specific characteristics such as alcohol–related symptoms and patterns of use, the age of onset, and accompanying medical and mental health issues.

Screening and brief intervention may be especially useful in minimizing alcohol problems in older women.

Although brief intervention research with this population is limited, the findings are promising.

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



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 discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of 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 August 24, 2017
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 24, 2017.
Published on

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.