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Women, Alcohol, and Brain Damage

Study Shows Female Alcoholics Have More Evidence of Mental Impairment Than Men
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 23, 2007 -- Women who are alcohol-dependent develop serious and potentially irreversible brain damage more quickly than men, new research shows.

Despite having a shorter history of alcohol dependence and drinking less overall, female alcoholics in the study showed more evidence of mental impairment than their male counterparts when subjected to a battery of mental performance tests.

"We have known that liver damage, heart damage, and circulatory system problems related to alcohol abuse occur more quickly in women and with lower levels of consumption," researcher Barbara Flannery, PhD, tells WebMD. "We now know that the same is true for mental function."

Memory, Thinking Impaired

Roughly one in three women in the U.S. report drinking alcohol regularly and 2.3% -- or 2.5 million U.S. women -- meet the criteria for alcohol dependence, according to government figures.

Long-term alcohol abuse has been shown to literally shrink the region of the brain associated with learning and memory in several brain imaging studies, with at least one group of researchers finding women to be more susceptible to this effect than men.

In the newly reported study, which was conducted in Russia, researchers compared the performances of 78 male and 24 female alcoholics and 68 nonalcoholics in a comparison group on a series of tests measuring memory, decision making, problem solving, and other aspects of mental function.

The study subjects ranged in age from 18 to 40, with the average age of the alcoholics ranging from 30 to 33.

To no one's surprise, the nonalcoholics performed better on the tests overall than the alcohol abusers. More surprising was the finding that the female alcoholics generally took longer to perform the tasks and had poorer test scores than the male alcoholics.

This was despite the fact that the female alcoholics were, on average, three years younger than the male alcoholics. They also averaged four fewer years of drinking, and 2.5 fewer years of alcohol dependence.

"It is clear that the population as a whole needs to be made aware of the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse on thinking processes, but we also need to recognize the gender differences," Flannery says.

Subtle Changes

The findings also make it clear that alcohol abuse can affect brain function in subtle ways, University of North Carolina professor of psychiatry James C. Garbutt, MD, tells WebMD.

"We have known that many years of severe alcohol abuse can cause dementia, but this tells us that less severe brain damage occurs in young people with fewer years of abuse," he says.

It remains to be seen if moderate to heavy drinking among nonalcoholics leads to the same cognitive declines, he says.

Garbutt is a research scientist at UNC's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies.

"There is little reason to believe this consequence is somehow limited to people with the diagnosis of alcoholism," he says. "The question is, 'Is there a threshold in terms of alcohol consumption associated with cognitive impairment?’ We don't have an answer to that yet."

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