SATURDAY, Aug. 18, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Can marriage -- or divorce -- drive people to drink?
A new study suggests the answer depends a great deal on gender: Marriage appears to lead to more drinking among middle-aged women, while divorce seems to drive middle-aged men to the bottle.
The research looked at people in general, and not everyone will follow the pattern. Still, the findings suggest that "marriage and divorce have different consequences for men's and women's alcohol use," said study author Corinne Reczek, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. "For men, it's tempered by being married and exacerbated by being divorced."
Researchers already know that men drink more than women, but women have been catching up in recent years, Reczek said. It also appears that men slow down their drinking when they're married, especially for the first time, she said.
But what about later in life and when marriages end, especially due to divorce? That's where the new study comes in.
Reczek and colleagues examined the results of U.S. surveys conducted in 1993 and 2004. They looked at just over 5,300 people (who were aged 53 and 54 in 1993) and tracked them over time. In addition, they interviewed 130 people directly.
"We find that unmarried and divorced women actually drink less than their continuously married counterparts," she said. "For men, those who were recently divorced have the highest number of drinks and men who are married have the lower number."
For women, the average number of drinks per month was nine for those who were married and 6.5 for those who were divorced over that time; for men, the numbers were 19.2 and 21.5, respectively. For those who got divorced during that period, the average monthly number of drinks per month was 10 for women and 26 for men.
What's going on? In some cases, women said their husbands introduced them to alcohol, Reczek said, so "they just drink more because their husbands drink more. Women talk about how when they get divorced, they lose the person encouraging them to drink."
As for men, they tend to turn to alcohol to cope with stress as compared to women who turn to food or family members, she said. It's also possible that single men are more likely to hang out with their male friends who enjoy an intoxicating beverage, Reczek added.
Mary Waldron, an assistant professor of Human Development at Indiana University, said research into drinking and marriage -- particularly among people in their 20s -- has been murky. "There is some research to suggest entry into marriage is associated with greater reduction in drinking for women than men," she said. "But other research suggests the opposite, and still other studies report similar reductions in drinking for men and women upon marriage."
The new study is unusual in that it suggests women who have been divorced for a while seem to be at the lowest risk of drinking, Waldron said. That conflicts with previous research.
Why does this study matter? Waldron said: "It's important to consider the role of marriage and transitions out of marriage, through divorce or widowhood, on risks for heavy or problem drinking, including risks for the next generation."
The study is scheduled to be presented Saturday at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Denver. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
For more on alcohol, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.