As awareness about the depredations of substance abuse grows, we might expect that the rates of drug addiction and alcoholism would be falling concordantly. But while this has been happening with a few illegal drugs, it has not been happening with alcohol, which is by far the most frequently abused mind-altering intoxicant. The statistics for American women are especially disturbing, as the rates of alcoholism among this group have risen noticeably over the last 30 years. Substance abuse is still much more common among men than women, as approximately 17 percent of men and 8 percent of women in the United States will meet the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism at some point in their lives. But the percentage for women has been expanding, making alcoholism a growing concern for women’s health advocates. Greater levels of alcohol use among females helps explain the increase in addiction rates to some extent. But the picture is more complex than that. Because of physiological differences in the way that men and women absorb, process, and eliminate alcohol from their bloodstreams, when consumption is equal women will become intoxicated more quickly than men. Presumably, this greater sensitivity to the effects of alcohol will leave women more vulnerable to addiction, so if alcohol consumption among men and women were rising equally, we would expect to see the rates of alcoholism among women increasing faster, which is exactly what has been happening.
Alcoholism and Child Abuse: The Untold Story
Evolving cultural expectations and standards combined with biological factors have contributed to the steady increases in the incidence of alcoholism among women that we have been witnessing over the past three decades. But there is another disturbing statistic that adds a different dimension to the problem—almost three-fourths of all female alcoholics questioned about their pasts have reported incidents of physical or sexual abuse that occurred in childhood (28 percent of all male alcoholics have reported the same). These numbers are both alarming and perhaps quite revealing, as they raise the possibility that increases in alcohol dependency among women in the post-World War II era, when alcoholism rates first started to trend upward, are being influenced by a hidden epidemic of child abuse. This association is not certain—it could be that more women are turning to alcohol as a way to cope with abuse than had previously been the case—but the alcoholism-child abuse relationship does show that chemical dependency is often a delayed response to past trauma.
Alcoholism and the Physiology of Disease
Unfortunately, the differences in physiology that leave women less able to effectively handle alcohol have consequences that go far beyond relative intoxication levels or proneness to alcoholism. When women drink regularly and to excess, the strain it puts on their bodies exacts a hefty price, as they face an elevated risk for many dangerous health conditions not just in comparison to the general female population, but also in comparison to men who share their addiction to alcohol. Some of the health problems associated with alcoholism in women include:
- Higher rates of cirrhosis and other diseases of the liver (in comparison to male alcoholics)
- Brain shrinkage and memory loss (at higher levels than in men who drink to excess)
- Greater damage to the heart (than in male alcoholics)
- Elevated risk (compared to non-alcoholic women) for cancers of the breast, throat, esophagus, mouth, liver, and colon
- Greater risk of becoming the victim of sexual assault or incidents of domestic violence (in comparison to women who do not have alcohol problems)
- Disruption of menstrual cycles, possibly leading to infertility, miscarriage, premature delivery and still births
- Increased risk of losing a child to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), if there was heavy or regular drinking during the first trimester of pregnancy (before the woman realized she was carrying a child)
A very recent study carried out in Germany found, to no one’s surprise, that male and female alcoholics in the 18-64 age group were at much greater risk of dying prematurely than non-alcoholics of both genders. But while the increase in risk for alcoholic men was double that of their non-alcoholic brothers-in-arms, women with drinking problems were an astonishing four times more likely to die at an early age than women who did not drink or drank only modesty.
Whatever the social and cultural factors are that have been driving the increase in alcoholism in women in the United States, it is uncertain if this change represents a permanent alteration in drinking habits or is only a temporary aberration. If people really are becoming more aware of how threatening to human health alcoholism and substance abuse actually are, this might be making an impact on younger generations even as we speak, and perhaps this will lead to decreases in the rates of alcoholism in men and women alike in the very near future. For women, the stakes are especially high, since medical science has now conclusively proven that alcoholism has a more devastating effect on the bodies of women than it does on their male counterparts. Drinking is a potentially dangerous and possibly even deadly behavior, particularly for women, and anyone who makes the decision to consume alcohol should know exactly what she is getting into right from the start.