Drinking on the Rise Among U.S. Women

Study Shows Gap Is Narrowing Between Men and Women on How Much Alcohol They Drink

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 15, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 15, 2011 -- Problem drinking among women in the U.S. is on the rise, a new study shows.

Women are catching up to men when it comes to how much and how often they drink alcohol. As a result, they are increasingly at risk for developing alcohol problems.

What's more, men and women who were born after World War II are more likely to binge drink and develop alcohol-related disorders.

These are some of the main findings of a review of 31 studies that looked at how birth year and gender affect our drinking behavior. The study will appear in the December 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

What Is Binge Drinking?

"Given that alcoholism among women is increasing, there is a need for specific public health prevention and intervention efforts," study researcher Katherine M. Keyes, PhD, says in a news release. She is a postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City.

These efforts should target heavy drinking and binge drinking in women, she says.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings a person's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. For men, this may occur after having five or more drinks in two hours. Among women, binge drinking involves four or more drinks in two hours.

The findings mirror what addiction therapist Paul Leslie Hokemeyer, PhD, has seen in his practice at the Caron Treatment Center's New York City office. "This study empirically shows us that drinking trends are impacting women."

The time frame makes complete sense, he says. "After World War II, the role of women changed. More women entered the work force, but they were also expected to be good mothers and wives."

Many women may have turned to alcohol to help them cope with the pressure. "They have latched hold of alcohol as a coping mechanism because it is readily available and socially acceptable," Hokemeyer tells WebMD.

The Role of Stress

There are other reasons for the narrowing of the gender gap. Today, many women hold jobs in professions that were once male-dominated, such as banking. Women are competing with men on Wall Street. Their male colleagues go out and drink on a regular basis, and some women may feel they have to also, Hokemeyer says.

Alcohol is not a healthy way to cope with stress. If you think you need help or that alcohol has a hold of you, you are probably right, he says.

"If that quiet voice inside your head, heart, and gut is telling you that something is not right, follow your instincts," Hokemeyer says. "For women, in particular, there is so much shame around alcoholism and drug use that they have a hard time connecting to recovery issues."

The new study helps crystallize what individual studies have hinted at, says Richard A. Grucza, PhD, an epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"The gender gap is narrowing, and this may have a lot to do with the numbers of women entering the work force," he says. This financial independence increases their access to alcohol.

The college environment may also foster binge drinking among women and men. More female undergraduates are exposed to alcohol today and are at risk for alcohol problems as a result, Grucza says.

Programs that teach people about problem drinking may help shine a light on what is and is not normal when it comes to alcohol use.

Show Sources


Paul Leslie Hokemeyer, PhD, addiction specialist, Caron Treatment Center, New York City.

Keyes K.M., Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2011.

Richard A. Grucza, PhD, epidemiologist, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis.

CDC web site: "Binge Drinking."

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