POST 50
01/08/2013 08:01 am ET

Drinking Age: Do Older People Drink More Than Younger People?

For as long as I can remember, I have reached for a glass of wine when I wanted to relax. No, I’ve never made a habit of three-martini lunches -- and I certainly don’t drive after drinking. But plenty of my social rituals -- everything from book clubs to block parties to progressive dinners -- revolve around drinking. And I admit that, in years past, I’ve on occasion found myself as unsteady as a toddler on ice skates after throwing back one too many at a party.

My teenagers, on the other hand, have never experienced that long, slow slide to being nicely buzzed -- and not only because they're not of drinking age. Unlike me at their age, they and their friends shake their heads censoriously when asked about alcohol. “Drinking? Drugs? Why would I want to wind up like Whitney Houston?” asked one of my children’s friends, in that blunt way teens are so well known for. Of course, I can’t be 100 percent sure of this, and I could be wearing blinders when I look at them. But whereas my teenage diaries from the early 1980s would be an embarrassing record of youthful depravity, it seems many of the members of my kids’ generation really do “just say no.”

Middle-aged friends of mine with teenagers or college students tell me that their kids look askance whenever they open a bottle of wine -- rather than it being the other way around.

"I remember sneaking out of the house and doing all sorts of wild and crazy things when I was a teenager," and not of drinking age, said one mother of three in suburban New York City. "Now my kids hang around the house with friends and look down on me for having more than one drink.

"Not that this is a bad thing ... it's just not what I expected," she said.

Apparently, my experience isn’t unusual. A new study published in late December 2012 found that middle-aged professional women consume more alcohol than their teenage children. Although young people are still more prone to binge-drinking, boomers are more likely to drink every day. Overall, women aged 45 to 64 drink more than any other age group, putting themselves at risk for all sorts of health troubles.

Although this particular study was conducted across Britain, research in the United States also shows similar patterns when it comes to drinking and age, revealing that baby boomers –- and women in particular -– are drinking more alcohol.

Since 2000, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions for people age 50 and older have jumped by 70 percent, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Previous research suggests that the number of older substance abusers could climb to as many as 4.4 million by 2020, up from 1.7 million seniors in 2001.

Numbers such as these prompted the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to launch a website called Rethinking Drinking in 2011, which is designed to draw attention to the dangerous habits of seniors-to-be.

Some studies even suggest that binge-drinking is no longer a phenomenon associated only with teenagers or college students.

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2009 found that 23 percent of men and 9 percent of women between 50 and 64 reported drinking at least five alcoholic beverages in the same day, during the previous month.

“A surprising number of older Americans are engaging in drinking patterns that are putting their health at risk, yet these problems often go unrecognized,” said Dr. Dan G. Blazer, the study’s lead author, in a press release. “With this study we’ve learned that adults, especially those in their fifties, are carrying a heavier drinking burden into late life.”

Some experts say heavy drinking can be blamed on the very high drug-use culture boomers grew up with in the 60s and 70s. Others say it’s increasingly hard to get ahead in the workplace unless you drink.

Last month's Britain-wide survey found that professional women in demanding jobs were more likely to unwind with an alcoholic drink or two at the end of the day than those not in the workforce. And while women aged 16 to 24 were consuming about 20 percent less alcohol than they did several years ago, the study found that older men were drinking about twice as much as older women.

Whatever the culprit, boomers have made headlines lately for behaving badly in alcohol-fueled incidents.

Last week, a British Airways flight was forced to make an emergency landing after two drunk middle-aged women tried to storm the cockpit.

And just this past weekend, Thomas Gibson -- the 50-year-old actor known for his roles on "Criminal Minds" and "Dharma & Greg" -- was arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of a misdemeanor DUI.

If older Americans are drinking more, it could also be the result of the mixed messages they've received when it comes to the health benefits of alcohol. Whereas moderate drinking may reduce your risk of developing heart disease, excessive drinking can lead to neurological problems, cardiovascular troubles, liver diseases and even cancer.

So how do you know if you have a problem? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Rethinking Drinking site can help you find out whether your drinking pattern is risky, and also give you strategies for cutting down.

Do you drink more than your teenagers or college-aged kids? Let us know in the comments section below.

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