February 25, 2015

Middle-Aged Men and Alcohol

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

We’ve all probably heard the phrase “teen drinking” and thought about it as a social problem. Many public service announcements (PSAs), like the one below, highlight the problem of teen drinking.

But data just released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 35-64-year-olds are the most likely of any age group to die from drinking too much. And three-quarters of those who die are men. Perhaps we should have PSAs for teens’ fathers and grandfathers. More people 65 and older died of alcohol poisoning than those aged 15-24.


What’s particularly interesting about the findings is that apparently only 30 percent of those who died of alcohol poisoning did so from complications of alcoholism. Most of the victims were not alcoholics, but instead engaged in a dangerously high level of binge drinking that led to their deaths. The study indicated that the average binge drinker consumes eight drinks in a short period of time.

You might be surprised to learn that underage college students aren’t the nation’s biggest binge drinkers. The CDC reports that 70 percent of binge drinkers are aged 26 and older, and that more than half of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. is part of binge drinking. So many people don’t become more responsible drinkers as they age. In fact, the CDC found that people aged 65 and over binge drink more often than young adults.

Alcohol poisoning

As I blogged about in 2007, we regularly focus on young drinkers as a major social problem even though for a long time data has demonstrated that older adults create more public health problems: they need more medical treatment, drink and drive (and get into accidents) more, and sometimes parent while drunk, creating a ripple effect on their children’s lives and add to the caseloads of social services.

It is easy to draw on common stereotypes that teens are irresponsible and immature and are to blame for the problems caused by over-consuming alcohol. We might consider how and why the causes of social problems—like alcohol abuse— become common sense even though we might misunderstand who is actually most likely to abuse alcohol and create the biggest problems from excessive drinking.

Instead, let’s think sociologically about why men 35-64 are the group that is most vulnerable to alcohol-related deaths, even those who aren’t alcoholics.

As sociologist William Marsiglio writes in “Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids,” men might feel that part of masculinity involves heavy drinking, especially drinking with other men. Being able to hold one’s liquor might be associated with “manliness,” as might a sense of invulnerability about its effects. While some of these bonding rituals may begin in late teen years and early adulthood, they extend well into much of the life course.

The alcohol industry relies on these heavy drinkers, especially those who consume with buddies during sporting events; the industry markets to sports fans heavily. Beer manufacturers make commercials boasting about how they prevent teens from buying their product as a public relations move, but their best customers aren’t teens anyway.

The notion that grown men can “hold their liquor” is also reinforced by the common warnings about “teen drinking” as the main problem when it comes to alcohol. The rhetoric about dangerous drinking as a teen issue might enable older men who drink excessively not to see their own behavior as problematic. If, as the logic about the danger of teen drinking goes, teens are immature and make poor decisions, then the corollary is that older men make better decisions and know their limits. This is clearly not always the case, as the data on alcohol-related deaths demonstrate.

How we construct meanings around social problems has a real impact on the kinds of solutions we create. Because drinking for so long has been seen of a problem of youth, and not middle and older adulthood, most attempts at solutions have completely overlooked middle-aged male binge drinking.

What solutions do you think might better target 35-64-year-old men to reduce alcohol related deaths?


Hi Karen,

Great post, you packed in a ton of important information. I'm going to share this post with my Research Methods class this semester.


Yeah it is very much true that middle aged men and old men die with alcohol initiated health ailments, but I would rather believe that most of these middle and old aged people continued the habit consuming alcohol from young ages

Great post


Very well detailed post you have shared with us. Thank you for sharing this informative information. Keep it up.

You helped thanks. Am trying to cut down on drinking.

Great post

This is very informative and should be shared widely. Thanks for the post.

Good information.

Thanks for sharing.

great read

This very true that middle aged men die of too much drinking, this a great article which will help many

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