The who and what of women’s drinking: Examining risky drinking and associated socio-demographic factors among women aged 40-65 years in Australia
Significance of the study
The analysis sheds new light on trends in alcohol use amongst middle-aged women in Australia between 2001 and 2019 using a nationally representative sample. Importantly, the study also adds to knowledge on associations between high-risk alcohol use and a range of sociodemographic characteristics and contextual alcohol consumption variables in an understudied population. Examining alcohol use among middle-aged women is important as they have historically been an overlooked group in addiction research, partly as the harms they experience from alcohol are less visible and partly due to gender and age biases in alcohol and other drug research.
Recent trends in Australian national survey data show an increase in alcohol use among middle-aged people, amidst declines in alcohol use among other population groups. There is limited research, however, on middle-aged women’s alcohol use. This study aimed to examine patterns in alcohol use among Australian women aged 40 to 65 years and the associated sociodemographic and contextual factors.
Cross-sectional data from six waves of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (2001-2019).
The researchers estimated the prevalence of long-term high risk alcohol use (>2 Australian standard alcoholic drinks per day) and high-risk-single occasion alcohol use (>5 Australian standard alcoholic drinks on one occasion) among middle-aged women. Logistic regression models were estimated using 2019 data to examine demographic characteristics and contextual factors associated with alcohol use.
Since 2001, there has been a statistically significant increase in long-term high-risk alcohol use and high-risky-single occasion alcohol use amongst middle-aged women in Australia. Educational attainment, marital status and employment status were negatively associated with high-risk alcohol use, whereas rurality, age and location of use were positively associated with high-risk alcohol use.
Beverage type was both positively and negatively associated with high-risk alcohol use.
Discussion and conclusions
Given the significant increase in alcohol use amongst middle-aged women in Australia, prevention efforts are needed for this group, which may focus in particular on home alcohol use and the impact of rurality on alcohol use.
Rising alcohol use in women
The analyses found that in 2019 middle-aged women in Australia were significantly more likely to consume alcohol at high-risk levels than women of the same age group in 2001; this was demonstrated in measures of both long-term high-risk alcohol consumption and high-risk-single occasion alcohol use.
We know that double burden, working and caring duties, is a large cause of stress for women. And stress is a significant risk factor for alcohol use,” said lead author Mia Miller, a research officer and PhD candidate at The George Institute for Global Health, as per ABC News.Mia Miller, research officer and PhD candidate, The George Institute for Global Health
Reasons for increasing alcohol use in Australian women
- There may be a number of explanations for this increase. Whereas it was previously moralised and stigmatised, alcohol use amongst women is now socially acceptable and normalised, a change which may reflect the financial and social freedoms that many women now have due to increased participation in the workforce and changing gender roles. This normalisation of alcohol has resulted in less stigma and more opportunities for women to consume alcohol.
- Studies show that women are more likely to use alcohol to cope with negative affect and stress than men and with diagnosed depression and anxiety increasing amongst Australian middle-aged women from 13% in 2009 to 19% in 2019, this may help to explain the increase in alcohol use. Qualitative research with women in this age group demonstrates that using alcohol provides women with reward and relief that helps to provide a ‘time-out’ from work and child-care responsibilities.
- Providing women with alternative ways to experience pleasure and reward and cope with the stressors arising due to increased workforce participation and changing gender roles may be a meaningful way to reduce alcohol use.
- The proliferation of alcoholic beverages designed to target women and the increase in marketing of these products could also help explain this increase in alcohol use.
- Alcohol marketing of products aimed at women capitalises on the associations between women’s alcohol use, perceived pleasure and autonomy and thus may be working to reinforce and perpetuate these behaviours and norms.
- As such, stronger regulation of alcohol marketing is required, including a shift away from the industry-led, voluntary Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code in Australia to an independent scheme.
There’s a societal expectation that we need alcohol to socialise, and then at the same time alcohol advertising reinforces those stigmas,” said lead author Mia Miller, a research officer and PhD candidate at The George Institute for Global Health, as per ABC News.
Mia Miller, research officer and PhD candidate, The George Institute for Global Health
Summary conclusion: public health concern
This study demonstrates that increasing proportions of middle-aged women in Australia are using alcohol at levels that put them at risk of both short-term and long-term harms.
While alcohol use in this demographic is still lower than men and young people, their increases in alcohol consumption come in the context of population level declines in alcohol use. This, coupled with women’s increased susceptibility to alcohol-related health conditions, is a cause for public health concern.
This study identifies a number of sociodemographic and contextual factors significantly associated with high-risk alcohol use in middle-aged women. This knowledge can be used to guide future research and inform the design of interventions and policies that will help reduce alcohol use in women of this age group.