USING booze to cope with the stresses of life and motherhood is the subject of countless internet memes and self-deprecating gags, but a University of Newcastle academic wants women to “drink with their eyes open” to the risks as rates of hazardous alcohol consumption climb in females aged 30-to-50 years old.
“We know that, historically, men have tended to drink twice as much as women,” Dr Sally Hunt, clinical psychologist, said. “But alarmingly, that gap is closing.”
“Wine time”, or drinking, had crept up to become habitual, Dr Hunt said.
For many, it was a daily ritual.
Dr Hunt, who has been researching the reasons women drink, said Australian data published last year showed those in the 40-to-50 year group were exceeding the “lifetime risk guideline” more frequently.
“If you have three drinks every day, then you are contributing to your lifetime risk because you are not having any alcohol-free days,” she said. “It is that habitual, regular drinking. Once you reach a certain threshold, it is contributing to risk, and women in that age group had significantly increased their rates of exceeding that guideline from 10 years before.
“It wasn’t just that men’s rates were coming down, it was that women were drinking more on a regular basis.”
Women aged 30-to-40 were increasingly falling into the “binge drinking” category, while alcohol use in younger groups – those aged 18 to 25 years – had declined.
“To me it is clear, as a clinical psychologist, that the reasons women drink are different, in general, to the reasons men drink,” Dr Hunt said.
“But most of our harm minimisation messages are targeting the way in which men drink. There’s ‘Drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot’, there is the one with the kid vomiting all over his mate at a party, and another with someone getting into a fight at the pub.
“If you’re a woman in the 30-50 age group, I’d hazard a guess that you are more likely to be drinking at home, rather than the pub. You’re more likely to be drinking on your own or with your partner than with a large group of people, and less likely to be driving a car. “Now, I haven’t got the data to support that, but that’s my hunch.
“Those women are not likely to incur the same kind of harm that is typically associated with problematic alcohol use, so they may not actually know that their drinking is problematic.
“They may not be thinking about the longer term consequences.”
Dr Hunt said alcohol was a known carcinogen.
“Many women are shocked to know that alcohol is an independent risk factor for breast cancer,” she said.
“With skin cancer, minimising risk is putting sunscreen on, wearing a shirt, trying to stay out of the sun.
“For breast cancer, you would do a self-exam. See a doctor if you find a lump. Genetic testing, maybe.
“Yet alcohol is a very obvious, modifiable breast cancer risk factor.
“If you want to reduce your chance of getting cancer, reducing alcohol is a simple and easy thing you could do.”
Dr Hunt said she was not advocating that everybody should be abstinent.
“But I’d like people to have a clearer association with the harms so they can make an informed, safer choice,” she said.
Facebook memes with pictures of a bottle or glass of wine with the words, “Mummy’s little helper”, “Mummy medicine” and “Time to wine down” were amusing, and seemed harmless.
“Those things are great as a stress reliever, and having that sense of solidarity… there is a lot of value in that – but the down side, or the risk, is that it is offered as a coping strategy,” Dr Hunt said.
“The ultimate end point for me with this research is that I am developing an online support intervention for women. My hypothesis is that, for that group, alcohol use is really around stress relief, letting off some steam to cope with the many roles most women carry. If we have some alternative ways of coping, alcohol can become a sometimes thing, not an everyday coping strategy.”
Dr Hunt said she saw some parallels between alcohol and sugar consumption.
“Sugary foods are lovely, people like to eat sugary foods, but we have learned that they are sometimes foods and if we eat them every day or in large quantities, they are not good for us,” she said. “Short term, you might get a tummy ache. Long term, you’re at risk of some serious illnesses. So they are something you have for a special occasion, or sparingly. It doesn’t mean we demonise it, but look at it as healthy in moderation.”
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