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The Gap Is Closing: Alcohol Use among Women on the Rise

December 26, 2015

woman and anxietyHistorically, women have not only drunk alcohol far less often than their male counterparts, but fewer of them developed alcohol use disorders including addiction as compared to men as well.

Though this is still the case, there is not as stark a contrast as there once was. According to a study recently released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and published in the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the alcohol habits of women are quickly catching up to the habits of men. Not only are more women drinking more heavily than ever before, but the women who are drinking are drinking more in a single sitting than they once did as well.

Aaron White, PhD, was a researcher on the study. In a news release, he said: “We found that over that period of time, differences in measures such as current drinking, number of drinking days per month, reaching criteria for an alcohol use disorder, and driving under the influence of alcohol in the past year, all narrowed for females and males. Males still consume more alcohol, but the differences between men and women are diminishing.”

The Study

The study findings came from analysis of data from the 2002 through the 2012 annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health results, each including information from about 70,000 participants, according to Fox News. Some of the findings included:

  • About 44.9 percent of women self-reported drinking in the past month in 2002 as compared to 48.3 percent in 2012.
  • The rate of men who self-reported drinking dropped from 56.6 percent in 2002 to 56.1 percent in 2012.
  • Women reported drinking on average about 6.8 days per month in 2002, but by 2012, that number had increased to 7.3 days per month.
  • Comparatively, men reported drinking an average of 9.9 days per month in 2002, but by 2012, that number dropped to 9.5 days.
  • Though rates of drinking among men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 who were enrolled in college did not change during this period, the rates of binge drinking among women of this age group who were not enrolled in college increased, but rates decreased among men who were not enrolled in college.

Evolution of Behavior

Why is it that more women are more heavily turning to alcohol for stress relief, mood management, and entertainment? Researchers are uncertain, but it is likely a combination of factors at play, including:

  • Lifting stigma: Society is changing, and it’s not a big deal for women to drink or to drink heavily. More and more women who were choosing not to imbibe before may be feeling free to do as they wish since society’s stigma against women and alcohol isn’t what it once was.
  • Ease of access: With smartphones and tablets has come a deluge of apps all competing with one another to bring the most convenience to consumers. Those who are interested can now simply tap their phone a few times and a six-pack or bottle of wine will be on the way – without having to get in the car if they are too intoxicated to drive and without having to go sit on a bar stool.
  • Changing responsibilities: Steadily, over the past 50 years, young people have been getting married later and later, and many have been postponing having children until later in life as well. This means that many women may be unencumbered by the responsibility of family for a longer period of time and thus may stretch out their “party” days a little longer than they have in the past.
  • Social encouragement: With Sex and the City came a new definition of women beyond their 20s as active party girls making the scene, cosmopolitan in hand. More than just a lifting of stigma, this is indicative of a culture that encourages women to drink and be seen, that to be active and alive is to go out and drink – often heavily.

The Risks

Three women toasting with beerThe increased rates of binge drinking and heavy drinking among women is concerning, first, for the health implications. Alcohol-related medical problems such as liver inflammation, certain cancers, and heart disease are often greater risks to women than men. Women often experience these issues at lower levels of alcohol intake and/or after a shorter amount of time spent living with an active alcohol use disorder.

Additionally, women are not immune to all the other alcohol-related issues that impact anyone of either gender who drinks heavily:

  • Financial hardship due to reckless spending while under the influence, high cost of alcohol, job loss, and inability to find employment due to alcohol use
  • Relationship problems with friends and significant others, including divorce and other broken family relationships
  • Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, often related to or exacerbated by alcohol use
  • Legal issues, including potential incarceration, especially if driving while under the influence

The Antidote: Treatment

Though there is no cure for alcohol abuse or dependence, there are numerous therapeutic and medical interventions that are research-based and proven to be effective in helping both women and men to stop drinking safely and to start living a life of balance and wellness. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to treatment for an alcohol use disorder, and women as well as men are encouraged to find the right fit. A comprehensive program will offer individualized treatment plans, a range of therapy options, and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues as well as aftercare treatment services and support.

If someone you love is struggling with alcohol, don’t wait to help that person take the first step toward treatment.

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