May 6, 2008 -- Hard-fought gains in women's rights come with an unwanted gain: rising rates of alcoholism in women born after 1953.
Women's pay rates haven't yet caught up with men's -- and neither have their alcoholism rates. But in the alcohol category, women are gaining fast, find Richard A. Grucza, PhD, and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine.
"We really are seeing a narrowing of the gender gap in alcoholism, with women beginning to catch up to men," Grucza tells WebMD. "It really is a robust change."
Grucza and colleagues used data from two large national surveys a decade apart: one conducted in 1991-1992, and the other conducted in 2001-2002. Each survey is based on face-to-face, U.S. Census Bureau interviews of some 43,000 men and women. Interviewers asked about alcohol use and about factors suggestive of loss of control over drinking (such as failed attempts to quit drinking).
A problem with surveys of alcohol use and alcoholism is that younger people are more likely to report lifetime alcohol use than older people are. To avoid this pitfall, Grucza's team compared people surveyed at the same age. For example, people who were 38 to 47 years old in 1991-1992 were compared with people who were 38 to 47 years old in 2001-2002.
The prevalence of alcohol use and alcoholism stayed about the same in men. But except in the very youngest age group, women reported significantly more alcohol use than they did a decade ago. Among white and Hispanic women born after 1953, alcoholism was up as much as 50%. Interestingly, no significant increase was seen among African-American women.
"Women's alcohol use has increased quickly since the 1950s," Grucza says. "It may have leveled off in younger age groups, but never to the baseline rates of the 1930s and 1940s."
"Usually, when you think of an alcoholic, you think of a man's face. But women now represent nearly a third of those who meet the criteria for alcohol abuse," clinical psychologist Stephanie Gamble, PhD, tells WebMD. Gamble studies alcohol dependency and depression in women as a National Research Service Award fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She was not involved in the Grucza study.
Women, Gamble notes, respond to alcohol differently than do men. Women clear alcohol from their bodies more slowly than do men. And Gamble says women develop alcohol-related problems more quickly than men do.
"There is this telescoping effect among women -- a shorter lag time between when they first start drinking and problems. Women have a shorter way to go before developing both physical problems, such as liver disease, and social problems, such as trouble relating to other people."
Strikingly, Gamble notes that alcohol-dependent women have a 17 times higher suicide rate than other women.
"Alcohol seems to be particularly potent in women for risk of suicide," she says.
This may be related to the fact that people who become alcohol dependent often suffer from other psychiatric disorders.
"Having other psychiatric problems in addition to alcohol seems more to be the rule than the exception," she says. "Often when we see a woman with an alcohol problem, it is worth asking whether there is something else going on, like an experience of trauma or an anxiety disorder."
Grucza and colleagues report their findings in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
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