Women Who Stop Drinking Still Face Impairment, Study Finds
In the U.S., people affected by alcohol abuse, alcoholism and overlapping symptoms of alcohol abuse and alcoholism all qualify for a single diagnosis called alcohol use disorder. Although this disorder has an impact on fairly large numbers of women, researchers have done relatively little gender-specific investigation of women’s alcohol-related risks. In a study published in June 2014 in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from two U.S. universities explored the factors that increase a young woman’s chances of receiving an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.
Women and Alcohol Consumption
Women process alcohol at a slower pace than men and also typically weigh less than men. This means that, generally speaking, a woman can consume less alcohol than a man before running afoul of public health guidelines that establish limits on safe or moderate drinking. While a moderate-drinking man can consume as many as four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week, a moderate-drinking woman can only consume up to three drinks a day and seven drinks per week. Women and men who surpass their gender-specific limits with any regularity qualify as heavy drinkers, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports. In turn, monthly or weekly participation in heavy drinking sharply increases the odds that a man or a woman will receive an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.
Roughly 47.9 percent of all women in the U.S. drink at least some alcohol on a monthly basis. In the young-adult age range of 18 to 25, this rate of drinking spikes to approximately 57.5 percent. A third of women drinkers between the ages of 18 and 25 engage in a form of short-term heavy drinking called binge drinking, which is known for its association with a range of serious personal and social harms. Smaller numbers of alcohol-consuming women in this age range don’t binge drink but still otherwise qualify as heavy drinkers.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcoholism is distinguished from alcohol abuse by the presence of a physical need to consume a minimal (and usually increasing) amount of alcohol every day. However, many of the behavioral indications of alcoholism also occur in non-dependent people affected by problems with alcohol abuse. Despite the overlapping nature of alcoholism and alcohol abuse, doctors have long treated the two problems as separate health issues. This situation changed in May 2013 when the American Psychiatric Association, traditionally the source of all widely used definitions for substance-related illness in the U.S., established the alcohol use disorder diagnosis. This diagnosis treats the symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol abuse as related and equally important problems.
Factors in Women
In the study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota used an examination of 636 women between the ages of 17 and 29 to explore the gender-specific risk factors that make a young woman more likely to meet the terms for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. Specific factors under consideration included mental health impairments resulting from alcohol intake, an alcohol-related inability to interact socially in age-appropriate ways and the presence of drinking-related issues extending back into adolescence.
Not all of the women involved in the study were affected by alcohol use disorder. The researchers concluded that, compared to the unaffected study participants, those women with the disorder had significantly more prominent problems with both alcohol-related mental impairment and an alcohol-related inability to interact socially. In addition, they concluded that the worst cases of diagnosable alcohol use disorder are likely to occur in women who first experience drinking problems during their teenage years and continue to experience those problems continually over time. Conversely, the researchers concluded that all highly affected women have similar levels of risk for alcohol use disorder whether or not their problems began during adolescence. Essentially, this finding likely indicates that, in many respects, the severity of alcohol-related symptoms is as important for women as the underlying factors that contribute to those symptoms.
The study’s authors also found that, unlike men, young women who experience a cessation of their basic alcohol use disorder symptoms still typically continue to feel the mental and social impact associated with active cases of the disorder. They believe that this lasting effect may be directly related to the early appearance of alcohol-related problems in adolescence and may indicate the presence of gender-specific consequences for alcohol use disorder.