Life has changed. When we were in our teens and twenties, how often did we watch our mums go out with a group of girlfriends and come home a little worse for wear? It just didn’t happen. I am not a particularly heavy drinker and I don’t get out-of-control drunk, but I can’t say my fifties have been immune from me arriving home and struggling to get my key in the front door.
Recently a friend dropped by one Sunday afternoon. After several bottles of wine we turned the kitchen into a dance floor, resulting in a sprained ankle for her, hysterical laughter from me, and my 20-year-old son looking on, horrified. I won’t even mention the singing.
If I think back to my mum, much of her socialising was based around coffee mornings, cake and activities like flower-arranging or playing badminton. As anybody who knows me will confirm, while I enjoy copious amounts of coffee and cake, the flower-arranging gene has passed me by and I enjoy meeting friends for a drink. I can happily remain alcohol-free for weeks, sometimes months, but if I have a glass it can easily become a bottle.
If I kept a drink diary I fear the cold, hard facts would have medics branding me a binge drinker. Just writing that down is quite a sobering experience. But I am not alone. It has become part of our everyday culture, with one in 10 women drinking more than recommended, according to Drinkaware.
How many alcohol units per week should we be drinking?
The new NHS alcohol guidelines says men and women who drink regularly should consume no more than 14 units a week – equivalent to six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine. It also says if people drink, it should be moderately over three or more days and that some days should be alcohol-free.
A YouGov survey in 2015 found “empty nester” mothers were at the forefront of the middle-aged drinking epidemic in Britain, with 28% of women over 45 admitting they drank as much or more than their grown-up children. Because they don’t get drunk, they often don’t see it as a problem.
Yet the latest NHS figures show those aged 55 to 64 are now the most likely to be admitted to hospital because of alcohol-related diseases and injuries.
Think back to Mother’s Day – in the past, gift suggestions were chocolates, perfume and flowers. Now bottles of Prosecco, craft gin and cocktails make up a huge part of the multimillion pound Mother’s Day marketing campaigns. We all smile at birthday cards and signs with slogans like “It’s not a hangover, it’s wine flu”; “This house runs on love, laughter and Prosecco” or “One Prosecco, two Prosecco, three Prosecco, floor”. These are gifted to loved ones in an affectionate and knowing way without any stigma or insult intended.
But when does all this stop becoming a joke and turn into something more serious? Even if you don’t have a reliance on booze, the cold, hard fact is that there is a reason we are told not to exceed 14 units a week, in the same way we know it isn’t healthy for us to light up a cigarette.
So why do so many of us have a drinking problem?
There is a suggestion that middle-aged women’s drinking patterns are a spillover from the ladette culture of the 80s and 90s. We have simply taken those habits into midlife and have developed drinking problems. The trend is also attributed to so many more women having professional careers where drinks after work are seen as the norm. Even if you are no longer leading that office-based lifestyle you become accustomed to knocking back a few glasses in the evening as you help your kids tackle their homework, prepare the evening meal or relax watching TV.
Many more people drink at home, which was unusual 20 or 30 years ago, unless you were having a dinner party. Chucking a few bottles of booze in with the supermarket shop is now an everyday occurrence.
According to Dr John Larsen, director of evidence and impact for alcohol education charity Drinkaware, one of the causes of our escalating consumption is wanting to be a generous host or hostess.
“It’s part of the British culture to keep topping up glasses and to expect large serving sizes. It’s seen as being a great host to not leave them empty. People want to be hospitable but it may mean some people get to drink larger volumes than they perhaps intended to.”
On the continent it’s more common to serve smaller sizes – in France, for example, a standard glass of wine is 100ml, whereas in Britain it’s 175ml for a medium. It’s important because serving size influences how much and how quickly people consume. At social gatherings, far more thought goes into the booze than tempting soft drinks or homemade non-alcoholic cocktails. “We need to give the message it is OK not to drink – it doesn’t mean you’re not fun or a great guest, or a poor host,” Dr Larsen emphasises.
So what are the risks associated with drinking too much, especially as we get older? Unfortunately they make for pretty grim reading. It’s tougher for our bodies to process alcohol as we get older and it increases the risk of getting illnesses such as breast, liver, bowel, mouth and oesophageal cancer. Drinking heavily or binge drinking can also increase the risks of dementia.
How does a drinking problem affect the menopause?
Not only does alcohol consumption affect fertility but it can make the menopause tougher to deal with too. “When women reach the menopause their bodies are affected by changing hormones. Alcohol can trigger some symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats,” explains Dr Larsen.
“Menopause can disrupt your sleep because of night sweats and cause you to gain weight. Alcohol often makes both of these issues worse. It can also increase the risk of osteoporosis.”
It’s not just men who have to worry about “brewer’s droop” – too much alcohol can also affect women’s sex lives. While it’s often thought that a few glasses can relax you, the reality is it can dehydrate your vagina, making sex uncomfortable and often painful.
According to Drinkaware, it can reduce lubrication, a problem for many menopausal women anyway, making it harder to orgasm and reducing the intensity of climaxing. If that’s what it does to the inside of our bodies, what about the outside?
“Alcohol interferes with the normal sleep process so you often wake up feeling – and looking – like you haven’t had much rest. Alcohol dehydrates your body, including the skin. It’s also thought to deprive the skin of certain vital vitamins and nutrients.
“With two large glasses of wine containing the same calories as a burger, it’s easy to see why regular drinking can lead to weight gain. Alcohol also reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy. Because we can’t store alcohol in the body, our systems want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and this takes priority over absorbing nutrients and burning fat.”
Before you pour yourself a nice glass of red to take the edge off that bad news, any reported health benefits of vin rouge come from drinking tiny amounts, much less than a glassful. If you’re still ignoring the health guidelines, think of your kids. If they grow up thinking it’s OK for one person to drink an entire bottle of Prosecco, they’re not getting the best role model when it comes to drinking problems. Whether it’s being shamed by the clinking of too many wine bottles in the recycling or the realisation that you can’t do certain things without a glass in your hand, it’s good to review your relationship with alcohol.
Dr Larsen states, “There is evidence that the difference between men’s and women’s alcohol consumption is shrinking, but our research shows that men and women differ in their approach to alcohol moderation. When women cut down they are more likely to say it’s to lose weight, whereas men are more likely to say it’s to save money or to be fitter.
“The UK Chief Medical Officers advise that both women and men should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week to keep health risks low and that it’s best to spread drinking evenly over three or more days, with several drink-free days per week.”
For me, it’s a bit like opening a packet of biscuits and learning to say no before I’ve demolished them all. Or I just need to remind myself there is no point in spending a fortune on posh skincare and then dehydrating my skin from the inside out… Time to pass the sparkling water please. For more info, visit drinkaware.co.uk.
Worried you might have a drinking problem? It could be time to think before you drink…
- Look at your glass recycling. Are you surprised by the number of empty alcohol bottles in there?
- Do you find it hard to imagine a night out with friends without drinking?
- When was the last time you were the designated driver or do you always suggest getting a cab?
- Do you wake most mornings feeling dehydrated?
- Have you at least one bottle of wine chilling in the fridge – just in case?
- Do you count down the minutes to wine o’clock and struggle to name your favourite soft drink?
- Have you avoided honestly counting the units you drink because you suspect you’re way over?
- Do you dread running out of your favourite booze when you go to a party?
How to stop drinking and get back on track
So what can you do if you are worried you have a drinking problem? The trouble with drinking more is your tolerance goes up, meaning you can drink greater quantities without feeling its effects or getting that pleasant buzz.
“People tend to think of alcohol dependency as black or white and presume they know what it looks like,” says Dr Nick Sheron, a liver specialist from Southampton University. “But everybody who is drinking on a regular basis, reasonably heavily, will have a degree of alcohol dependence.
“For most people, you can ‘reset’ your whole system by having an alcohol-free period. And people feel better for it. I can tell as soon as they walk through the door by their facial appearance. The difference is dramatic.”