Today, women drink as much as men, but suffer the consequences sooner
Victoria Cooper thought her alcohol use in college was like everyone else’s. Shots at parties, beers while bowling. He drank more than others and hangovers made him miss classes, but still he thought he had no problem.
“Based on the image I had of alcoholism – old men getting drunk in a parking lot – I thought it was okay,” said Cooper, who is now sober and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
That pop-culture image of who suffers from alcoholism was misleading more than a decade ago, when Cooper was in college. And it is even less representative today.
For nearly a century, women have been closing the gender gap in alcohol use, binge drinking, and associated disorders. What was previously a 3-to-1 ratio is closer to 1 to 1 globally , a 2016 analysis suggested.
And the latest data from the United States, from 2019, shows that women in their teens and 20s reported drinking and getting drunk at higher rates than their male peers; in some cases, for the first time since researchers began measuring this behavior.
This trend parallels increased attention to the mental health of young women, and researchers are concerned that the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may amplify both patterns.
“It’s not just about women drinking more, it’s about actually being affected by it physically and mentally,” said Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who has studied addiction in women.
Research shows that women’s health suffers from alcohol — liver, heart disease, and cancer — faster than men’s, even at lower levels of consumption.
Perhaps most worryingly, the growing gender equality in alcohol use does not extend to the recognition or treatment of related disorders, Sugarman noted. So while some women drink more, they are less likely to get the help they need.
In Cooper’s case, alcohol consumption led her to drop out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He returned home and soon began having a shot or two of vodka every morning before going to work, followed by two more shots at lunch.
When he tried to quit on his own, he could no longer.
Although the gender gap in alcohol consumption is narrowing at all ages, the reasons differ. In the case of those over 26, women increase their alcohol consumption faster than men. However, among adolescents and young adults there is a general decrease in this consumption. The descent is simply slower for women.
This may seem like a breakthrough, according to Aaron White, scientific adviser to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But it can indicate larger underlying problems.
“We are concerned that even though there are fewer people drinking, many of those who drink may be doing so specifically to try to cope,” White said. “And that is problematic.”
Research suggests that people who drink to cope or cope
– rather than drinking for pleasure – are at higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. And although each individual’s reasons for drinking are different, studies have found that women are more likely than men to drink to cope with a problem.
Cooper said that during adolescence, alcohol helped her overcome social anxiety. Then she was sexually assaulted, and a new pattern emerged. Drinking to cope with trauma. “It’s hard to get out of that cycle of shame, drinking and abuse,” Cooper added.
Statistically, women are more likely to be sexually abused or assaulted in childhood than men. In recent years, studies have shown that rates of depression , anxiety , eating disorders, and suicide increase among adolescent and young adult women. That could explain his drinking, White said.
And the layers of stress, isolation, and trauma from Covid-19 could make things worse.
A study that analyzed the effects of alcohol on college students, at the beginning of the pandemic, found greater alcohol consumption among those who reported higher levels of stress and anxiety. In addition, several studies found that women were more likely to report increases in this consumption during the pandemic, especially if they experienced increased stress.
“To address alcohol problems, we also have to address these pervasive mental health problems,” White said. “Everything is related”.
What’s more, despite alcohol’s initial calming properties, it actually increases anxiety , and studies show that it causes brain damage and can lead to depression more quickly in women than in men .
When Gillian Tietz started drinking in college, she found that a glass of wine helped relieve stress. But as soon as the glass was emptied, his worries grew worse. After a year, he began to drink daily. She said anxiety kept her awake at night and she started having suicidal thoughts.
Only when Tietz decided to stop drinking for a while did he realize the connection. Suddenly the suicidal thoughts stopped.
“That made the decision to quit really powerful,” explained Tietz, 30, who now hosts a podcast called Sober Powered . “I knew clearly what alcohol did to me.”
Until the 1990s, most research on alcohol focused on men . Now, as women approach parity in drinking habits, scientists are discovering more about the uneven damage alcohol causes to their bodies.
Women tend to have less body water, which dissolves alcohol, than men of the same weight. This means that the same number of drinks leads to higher blood alcohol concentrations, and their body tissues are exposed to more alcohol.
The result? “With fewer years of alcohol use, women get sick faster,” said Sugarman of McLean Hospital.
They are at higher risk for hangovers, fainting spells, liver disease, alcohol-induced cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. One study found that alcohol-related ER visits between 2006 and 2014 increased 70% for women , compared to 58% for men. Another work reported that the alcohol-related cirrhosis rate from 2009 to 2015 increased 50% for women , compared to 30% for men.
However, when it comes to the prevention and treatment of alcohol-related health problems, “that message doesn’t get out the way it should,” Sugarman said.
As part of a study, Sugarman and her colleagues gave women struggling with alcohol information about how alcohol affects women differently from men. Some participants had been to detox 20 times, but had never heard this information, Sugarman said.
Research by Sugarman’s colleagues found that women with alcohol use disorder performed better when in women-only treatment groups, which included a focus on mental health and trauma, as well as education on the specific elements of genre of addiction.
For Cooper, enrolling in a 90-day residential treatment program in 2018 dramatically changed his own perception of who is affected by addiction. She found herself surrounded by other women in their 20s who also struggled with alcohol and drugs. “It was the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel alone,” she said.
In 2019, she returned to UNC-Chapel Hill and completed her undergraduate degree in gender studies, completing a project on the links between sexual violence, trauma, and addiction.
Although the programs have helped Cooper stay sober for 3 1/2 years, she said a downside to those efforts is that they are often dominated by men. Literature written by men. Advice for men. Examples about men.
Cooper plans to go back to college this fall for a master’s degree in social work, with the goal of working to change this.
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