Life Wellbeing The last hurrah? Women’s middle-aged drinking and the U-curve of happiness

The last hurrah? Women’s middle-aged drinking and the U-curve of happiness

Researchers say happiness bottoms out at 50, then climbs again, along with an enthusiasm for booze. Photo: Getty
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Widely reported last week was a study that found women aged 50 to 70 were more likely than younger women to consume alcohol at levels that exceed low-risk drinking guidelines – more than standard two drinks a day at the time of the study – and that most of the women believe this is normal and acceptable.

As long as the women weren’t falling down drunk, picking fights or otherwise behaving badly or conspicuously when under the influence, they couldn’t see a problem with drinking at a level that apparently increases age-related risks of brain shrinkage, cognitive decline and “increases the risk considerably of premature death over a woman’s lifetime”.

It was an interesting finding for reasons that go beyond the frame of the Edith Cowan University (ECU) study (in collaboration with Aalborg University, Denmark).

The researchers investigated drinking behaviour as a social construction – alcohol use being “a deeply gendered behaviour” – and found that older women may drink as an assertion of control that takes precedence over the health impacts of booze.

“Health messaging of no more than two standard drinks per day and no more than four standard drinks on any single drinking occasion didn’t seem to be relevant to women in this age group. There was a fair percentage drinking over that,” said study leader Dr Julie Dare from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences, in a prepared statement.

What’s curious here, first and most obvious: Risk-taking behaviour is more associated with young adults than people entering the age of empty-nesting, grandparenting, sexual decline and bad knees.

Indeed there is research that finds competitive forms of risk-taking behaviour actually continue to rise until people reach 50.

This involved people putting themselves out there – backing themselves – more than riding motorbikes at breakneck speed.

But after 50, there appears to be a withdrawal from the hardscrabble pursuit of making it – or furthering our progress on the competitive social and vocational ladder.

To what extent this too is skewed toward women is worth pondering.

Where some men might see their 50s as the twilight of their youth, women via menopause and weary from child-rearing – not to mention too often feeling devalued in the workplace – can too easily feel it’s all over.

In an honest and sad piece in The Telegraph, Marina Benjamin – author of The Middlepause – writes: “Spring in particular is no longer for me. I am not just out of sync with nature’s rhythms: I’ve got no rhythms…

“Sometimes I wonder if my husband, a couple of years older than me, feels similarly. At 52, he is trim, he goes to the gym, watches his diet, and gets as much reward out of being a dad as he does from his work.

“What he mainly feels, he tells me, is a sense of urgency about his productive life potentially running out when there are still so many things he wants to accomplish. Unlike me, he doesn’t seem beset by fears of stagnation.”

But of course plenty of men also feel they have peaked and are vulnerable to being thrown on the rubbish pile.

Just look at the issue of ageism in employment, and the despair of men and women in their 50s being overlooked for jobs they could do competently, even brilliantly.

In 2017, wrote a cheery piece – ‘Your 50s Will Probably Be The Most Unhappy Time Of Your Life’ – based on investigative analysis of life satisfaction by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

This involved surveys of 1.3 million randomly sampled people from 51 countries, and the conclusion was this: Life satisfaction hits its lowest point in the early 50s for most people.

Well, based on the idea of the happiness U-curve, where life satisfaction starts out great, steadily drops away as responsibilities and the politics of experience pile up, and then recovers in old age – see here and here – a bottoming-out has to happen somewhere.

And the 50s is a logical time for it to happen.

So is it a case of pass the bottle and damn the consequences?

The Edith Cowan study found that Australian women were more likely to admit that a couple of drinks took the edge off tedious days, whereas the Danish participants rejected such an attitude.

“If the Australian women had some sort of distress in their lives they believed it was acceptable to drink. They were quite open about this saying ‘I just had a bad day, I needed to have a drink’,” Dr Dare said.

“Danish women were not the same. They reported it wasn’t ‘acceptable’ to drink if they were upset.”

But comfort drinking, like comfort eating, isn’t confined to a particular age group – nor is the depression that drink enhances.

More telling in the Edith Cowan study is that women drank enthusiastically, heedlessly for the sake of “social pleasure and feeling liberated”.

And, according to the study, this continues beyond the 50s, as the happiness curve heads upward.

Of course, riding in tandem with ageing is the awareness – and associated terrors and some ambivalence – that time is running out: Life is precious, increasingly so.

So why not throw back a few glasses and get a glow on? Get a little liberated.

Maybe there are better ways of doing it, but there’s something joyful in saying ‘What the hell’.

I have a terrific GP who has spent more than 40 years telling patients to cut down the booze, meat pies and cigarettes. He turns 70 in five years.

He plans to take all that good advice and flush it down the toilet. He’s looking forward to a last hurrah.

Maybe it’s not smart. The evidence is all against it.

But what better time in life is there to look out at the indifferent universe and say: Up yours.


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