There’s a fine line between what’s healthy and what’s dangerous. Have you crossed it?
There’s a good chance you’re going to drink alcohol today.
That’s okay. Certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, 70 percent of American adults consume alcohol regularly, buoyed by the understanding that moderate drinking has major health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
In general, we’re drinking more than our parents and grandparents did. A 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry collected data from a national survey of 40,000 people. Across every demographic the number of drinkers increased from the previous decade, but older adults were clearly the life of the party. Men and women born between 1946 and 1964 make up only a third of the U.S. population, but consume 45 percent of the booze.
Much of the rise in alcohol consumption can be attributed to positive cultural shifts, says Laura Veach, Ph.D., the director of screening and counseling intervention services in Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s surgery department.
Older adults traveling, socializing, and leading more active lives than their parents did. “We’ve changed the whole culture around drinking,” she explains, “and we’re more open to experiencing altered states.
Most of the time, this social drinking isn’t a problem. But the overall rise in drinking by older adults does cause some concern among substance abuse experts, who point out that the health benefits of alcohol don’t just disappear, but reverse as soon as you tip your glass one too many times.
Which begs the question: How much is too much?
Could You Have a Drinking Problem?
Although you might associate binge drinking with college students around a beer keg, overdoing it on the booze is much more common than you think. Technically, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in one day for women and five or more for men.
But, Veach says, three alcoholic beverages should be your limit—special occasion or not. (For reference, one drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.) Once you pass two, you’re squarely in the danger zone.
When was the last time you consumed three beers or 10 ounces of wine (that’s less than half the bottle) in one sitting? Earlier this year? This past weekend? Last night?
Although binge drinking on the whole tends to decline after your 20s, there are always outliers. And if you drank heavily when you were younger, there’s a higher chance you’ll continue to do so as you get older.
But that’s not necessarily always the case. People mourning the loss of a loved one or those who have lost a job are more likely to turn to alcohol. Individuals suffering from depression are also more likely to reach for the bottle as well.
People who struggle physically are at higher risk as well. Orion Mowbray, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Georgia’s school of social work. “When you combine mental health problems, like depression, with physical health problems, the risk for alcohol use issues goes up exponentially,” he says.
How to Assess Your Drinking Habits
“If you were to go to an AA meeting, they might talk about having a moment of clarity or hitting rock bottom, but that’s not always how it works,” Mowbray says.
Plus, adds Veach, if you can catch the first signs of alcohol abuse early on, it will be easier to get it under control. “If you wait until you’re at the bottom, then it’s like trying to stop a freight train,” she says.
Veach and Mowbray list the following four signs that you might be developing an alcohol problem:
1. You’re drinking more. Instead of one cocktail every evening, maybe you’re finding yourself drinking three or four a day. You might be drinking earlier in the day, too.
2. You’re sneaking drinks. You had an extra drink or two before sitting down to dinner or walking into the living room.
3. Your priorities have shifted. You used to enjoy going to the park, taking walks, and spending time with friends. Now you look forward to the next event where you can have a drink, or you avoid social functions where there is no alcohol available.
4. You’re facing serious consequences. You’ve fallen down a few times after drinking, you’ve missed important events because you were drinking, or friends and family have repeatedly told you that they are concerned.
Still Unsure If Your Drinking Is a Problem?
Mowbray suggests talking to your primary care doctor or taking a self-assessment, such as the online Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.
Everyone is different, however, and you might be able to scale back on your alcohol consumption alone. But those with serious alcohol disorders need to work with an expert. Ask your internist for a referral to a clinical addiction specialist or find well-qualified counselors and programs through the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration.