What Are the Risks of Alcoholism to Women?

When heavy drinking or binge drinking becomes severe, characterized by the inability to control how much alcohol is consumed, one may have developed an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This medical condition was once called alcohol addiction and is usually referred to as alcoholism in popular media. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that there are about 16 million people in the United States who struggle with AUD, about 15.1 million of whom are adults ages 18 and older. More men than women struggle with substance abuse on average, and this is true for alcohol use disorder, too; about 9.8 million men suffer from AUD while about 5.3 million women have this condition.

Alcohol can be much riskier for women than for men. The standards for binge and heavy drinking, for example, are different.

  • Heavy drinking: For men, heavy drinking involves about two drinks per day, or more than 14 drinks per week, on average; for women, it is more than one drink per day, or more than seven drinks per week, on average.
  • Binge drinking: This involves five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours for men, but four or more for women.

The differences between genders regarding problem drinking standards is typically attributed to differences in height, weight, body composition (women have more body fat while men have more water weight), and hormones. However, research has also shown that women also begin experiencing problems like health issues, mood changes, and behavioral changes in relation to alcohol use faster than men do, and typically develop addiction to alcohol more quickly than men do.

Women and Excessive Drinking

Although specific statistics show that women abuse alcohol less than men, updated statistics suggest that the culture and advertising around women’s drinking have changed so much that women now drink about as much as men do. A survey looking at men’s and women’s behaviors since the beginning of the 20th century found a phenomenon called sex convergence the trending together of men’s and women’s statistics, especially associated with alcohol. Early in the 20th century, far more men drank too much compared to women; by the 1980s, men were 1.1 times more likely to drink compared to women, and 1.3 times more likely to consume alcohol in a problematic way. As of 2014, that gap closed even more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that:

  • 46% of women report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days
  • 12% of women report binge drinking three times per month, with five or more drinks per binge
  • 5% of women met the diagnostic criteria for AUD in the past year

Since 2000, however, more women in the US are drinking than ever before. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry found that, since 2001, alcohol use disorders have increased overall by 50 percent, and both high-risk and disordered drinking rose about 20 percent; three-quarters of American adults report consuming any alcohol in the past year. Among women in particular, high-risk drinking has increased 60 percent while alcohol use disorder has increased 84 percent.

Another study found that, since 1999, alcohol-related deaths among white women between the ages of 35 and 54 increased 130 percent; alcohol caused about 8 percent of deaths in this age group. More women also binge drink, which puts then at risk of acute alcohol problems like poisoning.

Stated reasons why women drink include:

  • Problems with a loved one
  • Being single, divorced, or separated
  • Having husbands with alcohol problems
  • Trauma, especially sexual abuse
  • Drinking more when they start drinking

Women are also nearly twice as likely to have a mood disorder, particularly depression or anxiety, compared to men. Mood disorders are closely linked to alcohol use disorder, as the two feed into each other, making symptoms of the other condition worse over time.

Risks Specific to Women Due to Alcohol Abuse

Anyone who drinks heavily, binge drinks, or struggles with AUD is at risk for long-term health issues or acute alcohol poisoning. Risks associated with drinking too much, regardless of gender, include:

  • Increased risk of cancer of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and liver
  • Brain damage from dead brain cells, affecting cognition and memory in particular
  • Mood disorders, especially anxiety or depression, which can predate the AUD or may be induced by drinking too much
  • Cardiovascular damage from high blood pressure, causing drooping heart muscle, chronic high blood pressure, risk of stroke, and risk of heart attack
  • Liver damage and disease, including cirrhosis and liver failure

However, women experience unique risks from abusing alcohol for a long time. These include:

About 10 percent of US women drink while they are pregnant. This can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), the most severe of which is fetal alcohol syndrome. These disorders lead to poor cognitive and behavioral functioning in children, so they will need a lifetime of specific care.

Additionally, drinking while pregnant increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature delivery. Children are also at greater risk of death from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) if the mother binge drinks during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Even if a woman is not pregnant or seeking to become pregnant, drinking excessively can cause reproductive changes and harm. Menstrual cycles may become irregular, which increases the potential for infertility. Women who drink too much may have such lowered inhibitions that they make poor choices in potential sexual partners, have unprotected sex, and are at greater risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Parents who struggle with alcohol abuse put their kids at risk of mental illness and addiction struggles. Women who have children, and struggle with abusing alcohol, must get help to overcome this condition as soon as possible.

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