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Alcohol May Be Riskier For Women

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington DC, 9/10/04): A beer at a barbeque, a glass of wine with dinner, a drink at a bar. Most adults have consumed an alcoholic beverage at one time or another. While many studies reveal that men use alcohol more frequently than women, drinking seems to affect women differently than men and poses unique risks to women's health.

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol can affect a woman differently than a man. In general, women seem to become more intoxicated than men after drinking the same amount of alcohol. This is most likely due to body weight and hormone differences. There is also evidence that women under the age of 50 produce less of the stomach enzyme that breaks down the alcohol, thus creating a higher blood alcohol content for women when compared with men in the same age group, who consume the same amount of alcohol.

"Women metabolize alcohol differently than men and tend to get drunk more quickly," said Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Wellesley, Mass. "The disease of alcoholism may progress more quickly in women as a result."

There are more than 15 million people abusing alcohol in the United States and approximately one-third of them are women, according to the National Women's Health Information Center. The death rate among female alcoholics is significantly higher than among male alcoholics. Studies have revealed that women who abuse alcohol are more likely to die from suicide, alcohol-related accidents, circulatory disorders and liver cirrhosis when compared with men who abuse alcohol.

The death rate isn't the only issue with which women using alcohol need to be concerned. Women who drink are at higher risk for breast cancer, fertility problems, high blood pressure and stroke. Women who abuse alcohol during their pregnancy increase their risk of miscarriage and having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol is also related to unwanted pregnancy. "A huge portion of teen pregnancies occur when a woman is drunk," Kilbourne said. And the burdens of those situations usually fall into the lap of the teenage mother or her family.

Women in college who excessively drink are escalating their risk of sexual abuse and rape. "There is a sexual double standard when it comes to alcohol," Kilbourne said. "If men and women are engaging in the same exact behavior, it is interpreted differently if a sexual act occurs. The man who is drinking is somehow viewed as less responsible while the woman who is drinking should have behaved more responsibly."

Heavy drinking may also contribute to psychological problems including relationship trouble, depression and anxiety. "Women tend to use alcohol as a medication for depression more than men do or as a way to cope with depression or anxiety," Kilbourne said. More research is needed to determine the exact relationship between mental ailments and alcohol use, but it is clear that a proportion of the population who suffer from psychological conditions including depression and anxiety also use alcohol.

In 2002, nearly 2 million women aged 18 or older were estimated to have both serious mental illness and a substance use disorder during the past year, according to an August 2004 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Compared with men, women with co-occurring mental and substance use disorders were more likely to seek help in mental health and outpatient settings, have poorer job skills, and suffer from serious physical health problems.

Because the effects of alcohol use can be devastating for some women, it is important to recognize the warning signs and get the proper help, if necessary. Craving alcohol, needing more to get the same "buzz or high," having withdrawal symptoms including: nausea, shaking and anxiety if you stop using alcohol and feeling that you can't stop your habit are all signs of an alcohol problem and a signal that you need help.

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 9/10/2004  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 9/10/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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