O’Sullivan: Alcoholism in women is a growing epidemic

Although men have historically endured higher rates of alcoholism, women are catching up fast.

Peggy O’Sullivan

The rates of alcoholism in the United States are devastating, with 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffering from alcohol misuse and several million more engaging in risky, binge drinking patterns.

With women consuming alcohol at higher rates and frequency than ever before, the impacts on society could be severe.

A study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reveals that alcohol use disorder among U.S. women increased by 83.7 percent from 2002 to 2013. In addition, high-risk drinking, defined as more than three drinks in a day or seven in a week for women, has increased among women by about 58 percent.

According to the National Institutes of Health, research shows significant increases in drinking, binge drinking and extreme binge drinking among women. Alcoholism is a progressive disease that can advance from heavy drinking to full blown alcohol use disorder over time.

Due to the significant health risks alcohol misuse can have on women, the increases in heavy drinking raise specific concerns regarding women’s health.

Alcohol-related health problems impact women sooner and at lower drinking levels than men for reasons including women typically weigh less than men.

Alcohol resides predominantly in body water and women’s bodies contain less water than men, meaning when a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration will always be higher.

Binge drinking carries serious health risks and can cause many health problems. The Centers for Disease Control reports that excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year in the United States from 2006–10, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.

The same report showed excessive drinking was responsible for one in 10 deaths among working adults aged 20 to 64 years. National surveys show that about one in two women, aged 18 to 44, drink alcohol and 18 percent of those women binge drink.

For women, those deaths can result from a variety of health issues from alcohol misuse. A 2018 study revealed more women than men visited emergency rooms with alcohol-related issues between 2006 and 2014. And, death from liver cirrhosis rose in women from 2000 to 2013. The risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.

Specific risks to women from alcohol misuse include those related to reproductive health. More than 3 million women in the US are at risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy.

Additionally, excessive drinking may disrupt the menstrual cycle and increase the risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.

Alcohol misuse can also result in memory loss and shrinkage of the brain.

Research suggests women are more vulnerable than men to brain damage from alcohol use disorder, with the damage occurring faster for women than men.

Other health impacts resulting from alcohol misuse on women include damage to the heart muscle and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon and breast.

Considering the long-term health risks, the substantial rises in heavy drinking and alcoholism among women could have significant impact on our families, communities, healthcare system, even the economy.

Editor’s Note: Peggy O’Sullivan MC, LAC, LASAC, is a seasoned leader and clinician with expertise and experience in the clinical and operational management of SUD treatment programs.

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