Women, Alcohol, and Brain Damage
Study Shows Female Alcoholics Have More Evidence of Mental Impairment Than Men
WebMD News Archive
April 23, 2007 -- Women who are alcohol-dependent develop serious and
potentially irreversible brain damage more quickly than men, new research
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
"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
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.
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
"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."