Women and Alcohol: Five Key Facts

women and alcohol5 “In some ways the dynamic is simple: alcohol makes everything better, until it makes everything worse.” ― Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that  5.3 million women in the United States drink in a way that threatens their health, safety, and general well-being.   Moreover, they cite research that shows that about 37 percent of 9th grade girls, typically about 14 years old, report drinking in the past month. This means they are drinking more than 9th grade boys. The NIAAA also  reports that  about 17 percent of these same young girls say they have binged on alcohol, or had five or more drinks on a single occasion during the previous month.  A national analysis of hospitalizations for alcohol overdose found that the rate of young females age eighteen to twenty-four jumped 50 percent between 1999 and 2008.  During that time, the rate for young men rose only 8 percent. So, here are some important facts for women to consider as they decide whether and how much alcohol to drink–and as they counsel their daughters about drinking.

1.  The NIAAA has established  guidelines for low-risk drinking.

 The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) recommends that women who want to reduce the likelihood that they will develop  alcohol abuse or dependence consume no more than  3  standard size drinks on any single day and no more than   7  standard size drinks per week.  Both daily and weekly guidelines must be observed in order to reduce risk.

2. A woman’s body responds to alcohol differently than a man’s.

A woman  absorbs 30% more alcohol into her bloodstream than a man of the same weight who consumes the same   amount.  This is due to biological differences that cause women to metabolize alcohol differently than men.    First of all, women tend to have more fatty tissue and less muscle tissue in their bodies than men do. Muscle tissue has    more water than fat, so when a man drinks, alcohol circulates through his body in a more diluted form than the alcohol a   woman drinks. Also,  women  have  lower levels of two enzymes—alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase—that break down  alcohol in the stomach and liver.  And hormonal differences can have an effect as well. For example, women have been shown to develop their highest blood alcohol concentrations immediately before menstruating, and their lowest on the first day of menstruation. Susan Foster, Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse  (CASA) at Columbia University says that  each single drink hits a woman like a double. The fact that  alcohol travels through a woman’s body in a more concentrated form means that is has more impact on her in every way.

3. Women experience alcohol-related health problems at lower levels of drinking  than men.

 Women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-related liver disease and brain dysfunction. They develop hepatitis more easily and are more likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver.  They are more likely to sustain alcohol-induced brain damage than men, including cognitive impairment and reduced brain size.  Compared to women who don’t drink or drink in moderation, they are also at increased risk of osteoporosis, falls and hip fracture, premature menopause, infertility and miscarriages, and high blood pressure and heart disease.

A special cause of concern is the direct link that appears to exist between the amount of alcohol women drink and their likelihood of developing breast cancer. Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day. Breast cancer is the most common cause of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in women, accounting for approximately 6,000 deaths annually, or about 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths.

Overall, the NIAAA estimates that female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than those of male alcoholics.  This estimate includes deaths that result from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease, stroke and cirrhosis of the liver. (http://goo.gl/WKPo4A)

4.  Binge drinking is a growing problem among women

There’s been a shift in the drinking culture,  “where “males and females are considered equal, and unfortunately that has led to a stubborn level of binge drinking among girls,” says Aaron White, health scientist administrator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a division of the National Institutes of Health. To put it more bluntly, “they started to drink more like boys and they’re not letting go,” White explains.

According to the NIAAA, a binge occurs when a person drinks so much within about 2 hours that blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels reach 0.08g/dL. For women, this usually occurs after about 4 drinks, and for men, after about 5.   Binge drinking leads to increased health risks and such a rapid rise in blood alcohol content  can also cause a blackout (a complete or partial loss of memory about a drinking episode). A person  who is in an alcoholic blackout remains  conscious and capable of engaging in complex behaviors, such as driving a car.  However,  because she is  under the influence of a large amount of alcohol. her inhibitions are lowered and her judgment is impaired.  She is more likely to  have an accident and she is more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

5.   Women appear to progress more quickly from using an addictive substance to dependence.

 This phenomenon is known as “telescoping“.   Studies indicate that,  on average, it takes approximately 10 years for women to progress from self-reported problems with alcohol to treatment, as opposed to approximately 15 years for men.  Researchers are unsure why this is true, but note that there should be awareness of this “restricted time window between alcohol problems and the development of sufficient negative consequences to prompt seeking treatment among women” . The telescoping effect has led some experts to suggest that even moderate drinking can be risky for women. This may  be particularly true for older women. In fact, about half of all cases of alcoholism in women begin after age 59.

Do you think women are drinking more or do you think this is a problem that is just coming out of the shadows?  I’d be pleased to know your thoughts.

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