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Alcoholism in Women is on the Rise: What You Need to Know

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Women are drinking more alcohol and experiencing serious health issues from alcohol consumption at unprecedented—and alarming—rates. And while excessive drinking can cause problems for anyone, statistics show that women who drink have a higher risk for certain alcohol-related issues than their male counterparts. It’s important to understand the unique impact alcohol has on women and what the best course of treatment is for women with an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

When it comes to alcohol consumption, women of all ages face certain unique risks from excessive alcohol use—and it’s killing them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually there are about 27,000 alcohol-related deaths amongst women and girls.  What’s more, the rate of alcohol abuse in women is increasing more than in any other group.

Alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and alcohol use disorder have long been considered more of a problem for men. However, research is now showing that women are ‘catching up’ with men when it comes to both rates of AUD as well as significant health issues from excessive alcohol consumption, such as liver problems and mental health issues. 

Dr. George Kobb, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), said that alcohol is a “growing women’s health issue.” Kobb and Aaron White, a senior scientific advisor to Kobb, have been keeping a close eye on alcohol and the detrimental impact it has on women’s health. 

In addition to the rise in alcoholism in women, research is also revealing that women are experiencing increases in depression, anxiety, and suicide—add alcohol to the mix and it can be deadly. 

White said in an interview with U.S.News, “We’re seeing huge increases in depression and anxiety and suicide attempts among adolescents and young adults, particularly females. So, even if there aren’t more of them drinking, we’re worried that those who are drinking are going to be more likely to drink to try to cope with all that, which … can be a disaster.”

From serious physical health issues to debilitating mental health issues, women are suffering from alcohol abuse more than ever. Let’s take a closer look. 

Statistics on Women and Alcohol Abuse

The National Institute of Health (NIH) and the NIAAA took an in-depth look at alcoholism in women and alcohol consumption amongst women. Their joint findings were published in the booklet, Alcohol: A Woman’s Health Issue.  Here is some of what they found: 

  • 60% of women in the United States have at least one drink per year. 
  • 13% of women in the U.S. have more than seven drinks per week
  • 5.3 million women in the U.S. engage in heavy drinking that poses serious health risks
  • 37% of ninth-grade girls report having drunk alcohol in the last month (this is slightly  higher than the rate of drinking in ninth-grade boys)
  • 17% of these ninth-grade girls report having had more than five drinks on one occasion in the last month

One of the major points of concern is the increase in excessive alcohol consumption by adolescent girls. Research shows that youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 have a 40% higher risk of developing alcohol abuse or alcoholism than those who start drinking at older ages. 

In addition to these facts, the CDC reports the following when it comes to females and excessive alcohol consumption:

  • 13% of all adult women in the U.S. report binge drinking on an average of four times per month
  • 18% of adult women in the U.S. between 18 and 44 years of age report binge drinking
  • 32% of high school females reported drinking alcohol as compared to 26% of their male counterparts

To date, much of the research into alcoholism and alcohol abuse has focused on men, however, that is changing. As recognition of the growing problem of alcoholism in women continues, there is more research into women with alcoholism. This research includes not only looking at how many women drink alcohol but also how alcohol and alcoholism impact females differently than men. 

And while the reasons why more women are drinking excessively are not as clear, experts agree that excessive alcohol consumption by women can cause more problems at faster rates than their male counterparts. 

Many of these issues that develop earlier on women’s drinking are health-related and quite serious. In fact, the NIAAA also reports that women who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are at higher risk of certain alcohol-related issues than men. 

How Alcohol Abuse Affects Women’s Health

Numerous studies have revealed that women begin to have alcohol-related health issues sooner and at lower drinking levels than men. A few reasons contribute to this. First, women generally weigh less than men, therefore are more susceptible to both the immediate and longer-term effects of alcohol. 

In addition, according to the NIAAA, alcohol stays mostly in body water and women have less body water pound by pound than men. This means that when a man and woman consume the same amount of alcohol, for example, five ounces of wine, a female’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will be higher than a man’s thereby putting her at greater risk for alcohol-related harm. 

There are additional biological factors that play into the negative impact that alcohol has on women as compared to men. Differences in both biological structures and chemistry in women’s bodies cause more alcohol to be absorbed and it takes longer for women’s bodies to metabolize it. 

The long-term health effects of heavy drinking in women are reason for concern. According to research, women who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are at a higher risk for developing certain serious diseases and conditions. 

Let’s explore some of these. 

  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic, relapsing brain condition in which the individual’s ability to stop or control their alcohol consumption is impaired despite the negative consequences. 
  • Heart disease is found in both women and men who drink alcohol excessively. Long-term alcohol abuse is a leading cause of heart disease and women are more susceptible than men in developing heart disease from consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol. 
  • Liver disease, specifically alcoholic hepatitis, is found to be more prevalent in women who drink than men who drink the same amounts of alcohol. Alcoholic hepatitis is a serious and potentially fatal condition. Many times this condition leads to cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Brain damage from alcoholism is shown to happen sooner in women than in men. Additionally, alcohol consumption in adolescent years is shown to possibly interfere with normal and healthy brain development. Blackouts from drinking too much occur more in women than in men. 
  • Breast cancer risks increase for women who drink as compared to those who don’t consume alcohol. Studies show that women who drink as little as one drink per day have 5-9% higher risk of developing breast cancer. What’s more, is that this risk increases for each additional drink. 
  • Sexual violence occurs at higher rates with heavy drinking in particular binge drinking. 

It’s important to understand that while both men and women face these detrimental health effects from excessive alcohol consumption, women develop these potentially deadly conditions sooner than men and from drinking less than men. 

In the same article in the U.S. News, the serious health consequences of alcoholism in women was discussed. The article recounted a woman’s experience with alcoholism and the negative health effects at a surprisingly early age. 

Landree Sarata recounted how she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver at the young age of 31. In her story, Sarata talked about how she didn’t start drinking until she was 21 years old. As a sales representative, Sarata frequently took clients out for dinner and drinks. What began as social drinking soon turned into alcohol abuse. The result? At just 31 years old Sarata’s hair was falling out, feet and belly were bloated and swollen, and her energy was gone. 

After an emergency room visit, she was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis at just 31 years old and only ten years of drinking. Sarata was told she had three to five years to live with her current liver and would need a liver transplant. 

These serious health issues in women who drink are becoming more and more common. 

Dr. Jessica Mellnger,  a specialist in hepatology, gastroenterology, and internal medicine with Michigan Medicine, said in the U.S. News’ interview that in her work she’s seeing more cases like Sarata’s. 

“All the complications of cirrhosis – fluid in the belly, yellow skin, vomiting blood, profound confusion from the liver not working and toxins backing up – things that we used to think were pretty exclusively the provinces of folks in their middle ages, in the 50s and 60s, have really moved into this younger age group,” Mellinger stated. 

As the evidence continues to mount into the serious effect alcohol has on women, researchers are looking for both early warning signs for alcoholism in women as well as what treatment methods work best for women with alcoholism. 

In addition, many experts are emphasizing the importance of educating adolescent girls and their parents about the dangerous health problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption. 

Signs of Alcohol Abuse in Women

While no one can determine fully whether someone is an alcoholic or not, there are some signs to watch for in yourself or a loved one. Asking yourself the following questions—and answering honestly—can help to reveal if you (or a loved one) have a problem with alcohol:

  • Drank more or for longer than intended?
  • Tried on more than one occasion to cut down or stop drinking but were unable to do so?
  • Spend significant time drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking?
  • Experienced a craving or strong desire to drink?
  • Found drinking or the effects of drinking to interfere with responsibilities such as work, family, school?
  • Continued to drink despite negative consequences being experienced?
  • Found yourself in risky or dangerous situations while drinking?
  • Cut back on hobbies and activities previously enjoyed to spend more time drinking?
  • Continued to drink despite blackouts, anxiety, depression, or experiencing other health issues?
  • Had to drink more to experience the same effects? 
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms (shakiness, nervousness, sleep issues, irritability, depression, anxiety, sweating, nausea) when not drinking for a period of time? 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM-5), an individual who answers 

“yes” to two or more of these within a twelve-month period has an alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUDs are grouped as mild, moderate, and severe. The more of the above experienced, the more severe the AUD. 

Treatment for Women with Alcoholism

As mentioned, much of the research into alcoholism to date has looked at males and alcohol abuse. And while there is new research into treatment for women with alcoholism, more needs to be studied in order to provide the most effective treatment for women with alcohol abuse issues. 

Despite the differences between how alcohol impacts men and women, many of the treatment methods work well for both groups. When seeking treatment for alcoholism, there are a few items to consider. 

First, be sure any treatment program offers evidence-based therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavior therapy. Both have been shown to help men and women of varying ages, with different degrees of AUDs to recover from alcohol abuse. 

Additionally, finding a treatment center with a strong aftercare plan and program is essential. Recovery from an AUD or substance use disorder (SUD) is a lifelong journey. Getting treatment is the first step but just as with any other chronic disease, lifetime maintenance is essential. 

Treatment programs that help clients thoroughly prepare for life outside treatment are the most desirable. In addition, any treatment program with a strong alumni group can prove invaluable to those in recovery. 

As alcoholism in women continues to rise, the need for awareness about the deadly health consequences is vital for women of all ages. Helping adolescents and young women become aware of the unique dangers alcohol poses for them is important to help begin reversing this dangerous trend. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with a drinking or substance abuse problem, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here to help. Contact us confidentially online or call us at 866-804-2098.

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