Women and alcohol: Health risks are greater than for men

A 2011 study found two-thirds of college-aged women have gotten drunk at least once; a 1953 study put that figure at one half. (This is a file photo.)
A 2011 study found two-thirds of college-aged women have gotten drunk at least once; a 1953 study put that figure at one half. (This is a file photo.)
Carlsberg Group/Nana Reimers/Flickr

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This is the second of two KPCC stories exploring the issue of women and alcohol. Part one focused on the increase in DUI arrests of women in California.

More young women are drinking in the U.S. than in decades past, thanks to such factors as greater social equality and financial independence. But experts warn that women need to be aware that drinking brings greater health risks for them than for men.  

Researchers tend to rely on two seminal studies to measure drinking among college students. A Yale study in 1953 found that half of college-aged women had been drunk at least once in their lives. That number had grown to two out of three women by 2011, when the University of Michigan did a follow up study. That matched the 2011 rate for men, which had stood at 80 percent in 1953.

"It’s a stubborn problem that is not following the same trend that you see among males," says Aaron White, who oversees research on college and underage drinking at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

Health researchers are particularly concerned about the persistence of binge drinking among young women. 

The percentage of young women 18-25 who binge drink stayed steady at about one in three between 2002-2012, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  And because more young women are drinking, more are binge drinking.  (The government defines binge drinking for women as four or more drinks in one sitting.) More men 18-25 binge drink than women, but the percentage fell from 50 percent in 2002 to under 46 percent in 2012. 

Figure 3.2 Binge Alcohol Use among Adults Aged 18 to 25, by Gender: 2002-2012

+ Difference between this estimate and the 2012 estimate is statistically significant at the .05 level. Among persons aged 26 or older, an estimated 61.2 percent of males and 50.4 percent of females reported current drinking in 2012. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Researchers say drinking, particularly heavy drinking, can mean serious health problems for women

For one thing, women get drunk more easily than men, and not just because they tend to be smaller, the experts say. It’s also because women have fewer enzymes that break down alcohol, and, says the NIAAA's White, men have more water weight than women.

"Females have more fat stored than males, which means there is less free water floating around in the body for the alcohol to diffuse into," White says. "It would be like pouring a shot into a six-ounce glass of Coke, versus a 12-ounce glass of Coke."

That means women drinkers are at greater risk of getting liver disease and getting it at a younger age than men who drink just as much, he says.

Researchers say drinking also increases a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer. Studies have found that alcohol raises estrogen levels, which in turn increases the breast cancer risk.

And while most alcoholics suffer some loss of brain function, research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage, according to the NIAAA.

Women who are heavy drinkers are also more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease than men, the agency notes. 

The only safe-drinking campaigns aimed at women these days are designed for those who are pregnant. That needs to change, argues Sharon Wilsnack, an expert on alcohol and gender at the University of North Dakota’s department of clinical neuroscience.

"We really have a job to do in this country to help young women see it’s not a status symbol, it’s not a symbol of gender equality, to be able to get just as drunk as the guys," Wilsnack says.

Getting Help and More Information

Al-Anon groups are support groups for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic person’s life. Also makes referrals to Alateen groups, which offer support to children of alcoholics.

Phone: 888–554–COAS or 301–468–0985

Phone: 800–NCA–CALL (800–622–2255)

Provides telephone numbers of local NCADD affiliates (who can provide information on local treatment resources) and educational materials on alcoholism.

Phone: 301–443–3860

Offers a free 12-minute video, Alcohol: A Woman’s Health Issue, profiling women recovering from alcohol problems and describing the health consequences of heavy drinking in women. Other publications also are available from NIAAA and feature information on a wide variety of topics, including fetal alcohol syndrome, the dangers of mixing alcohol with medications, family history of alcoholism, and preventing underage drinking. See "Additional Reading," below, for information on ordering NIAAA materials.

Phone: 800–662–HELP (800–662–4357)

Offers alcohol and drug information and treatment referral assistance. (This service is provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services.)