Binge Drinking in Middle Age: Has 'Wine Mom' Culture Gone Too Far?
It's an image you see everywhere on social media and television: Groups of 30-something women, glistening glasses of chardonnay or cabernet in their hands as they let loose with their friends.
But a new study digs into the downside of "booze bonding" — these women are 60% more likely to engage in excessive drinking than their peers were some 25 years earlier.
The investigators also found that even as excessive drinking risk has shot up among modern middle-aged women overall, that risk appears to be particularly high among those who do not have children by the time they hit 35.
“The finding that women without children have higher rates of excessive drinking is not a new finding, and has been observed for decades,” acknowledged study author Rachel Adams, a research associate professor in the department of health law, policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health. That, she added, is because “traditionally, alcohol use declines after women become parents.”
“But because more women in recent cohorts are delaying or forgoing parenthood, the size of this [excessive drinking] group is increasing,” Adams added.
On that point, the study team noted that while 54% of women involved in the 1993-1997 surveys had children before age 30, that figure plummeted to 39% by 2018-2019.
The findings come as the rate of deaths attributable to alcohol abuse has ratcheted up over the past two decades, the researchers noted. And despite the fact that, overall, consumption rates remain higher among men, the rising risk for alcohol-related death has been growing considerably faster among women than men.
For their analysis, the investigators defined excessive drinking as either binge drinking during the two weeks leading up to the survey and/or consuming alcohol over the five years before the survey in a manner that meets the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Binge drinking in women was defined as having four or more drinks in one setting.
According to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), AUD is a brain disorder that's diagnosed when an individual struggles to either stop or control the sort of drinking behavior that wreaks havoc on a patient's health, work or social network.
Among women who were 35 when the earlier 1990s surveys were conducted, 15% reported binge drinking and 24% reported behavior that amounted to AUD.
By comparison, those figures were pegged at 20% and 31%, respectively, among women who were 35 during the most recent surveys. And risk was found to be relatively higher among those women who were not parents by that point.
So what's going on?
Adams noted that the study was “not designed to test the reasons for increased alcohol use over time.”
Speaking to drinking habits among women with children, she pointed to the potential impact of “the emergence of ‘mom-wine' culture on social media and on television shows, which encourages mothers to use alcohol as a way to deal with the stresses of motherhood.”
“Simultaneously,” Adams added, “there has been a rapid increase in alcohol products targeting middle-aged women regardless of parental status, such as low-calorie seltzers, pink beverages and expressions such as ‘rosé all day.'”
As for childless middle-aged women facing an even higher risk for excessive drinking, she stressed that her team's work is “not making judgments about women's personal decisions about when and if to become parents.”
Rather, Adams explained, "our study is meant to provide more insight” into who is most at risk, and what factors might affect that risk.
Above all, Adams underscored the fact that while “middle-aged women without children were at highest risk of excessive drinking, women with children were also at an increased risk in more recent cohorts. Therefore, risk for excessive drinking among middle-aged women is increasing in recent cohorts, regardless of parental status.”
The findings were published online June 20 in the journal Addiction.
Michael Pollard is a senior sociologist with the RAND Corp. and a professor with the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif.
He suggested that while the apparent jump in excessive drinking among middle-aged women is “large,” it does not come as a surprise.
“Other data sources have also shown similar increases since the early 2000s,” said Pollard, who added that many social, cultural and economic factors are likely contributing to that jump, including “increasingly accepting societal norms around women's drinking.”
That thought was seconded by Jinni Su, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in Tempe.
"The decision not to have kids or to delay having kids is a correlated factor, but not necessarily a causal factor” in the observed risk for excessive drinking among women, she said.
“This phenomenon is complex,” Su noted, “and many interconnected factors are likely at play and work together to drive up the risky drinking behavior.” Among other factors long linked to alcohol use, she said that stress, depression, higher education, job type and income status can all play a part.
Still, Su characterized the findings as “alarming,” and said they “really highlight the need for prevention and intervention efforts that target reducing risk associated with alcohol use among women, particularly among reproductive-aged women in their late 20s and 30s who are traditionally overlooked.”
There's more about women and alcohol at NIAAA.
SOURCES: Rachel Sayko Adams, PhD, MPH, research associate professor, department of health law, policy and management, School of Public Health, Boston University; Jinni Su, PhD, assistant professor, psychology, department of psychology, Arizona State University, Tempe; Michael Pollard, PhD, senior sociologist, RAND Corp., and professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School, Santa Monica, Calif.; Addiction, June 20, 2023, online