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Women Pay Heavy Price for Alcohol Abuse

Physical, mental problems more evident in women than men, study says

THURSDAY, Dec. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Women who abuse alcohol face more severe long-term health complications than men, a recent study says.

Researchers interviewed 711 St. Louis women and men who had been labeled 15 years earlier as heavy drinkers in a National Institutes of Health study. The researchers found that the women, in general, were in poorer physical and mental health than the men.

The women reported more difficulty with activities such as climbing stairs, walking around the neighborhood, or caring for family members. They also had more physical disorders that forced them to either decrease the amount of time they spent at work or at social activities.

And, compared with the men, they reported greater body pain and poorer mental health, including significantly higher rates of depression.

"We were surprised by the magnitude of the difference between males and females," says Kyle Grazier, author of the study and an associate professor in health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Grazier presented the findings at the First World Congress on Women's Mental Health, held in Berlin, Germany.

"The heavier drinking women were much more disabled than the men," Grazier says. "We know women are more prone to depression and mental disorders, but we didn't expect to see the functional disorders."

But such findings echo reports from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which show that women are more susceptible than men to alcohol-related organ damage. And women are more likely to develop alcohol-induced liver diseases, particularly cirrhosis and hepatitis, over a shorter period of time and after consuming less alcohol than men.

Alcohol also has been linked to increasing a woman's risk of developing certain types of brain damage, heart disease and breast cancer.

Grazier says there's no strong evidence to explain why women are more prone to problems from alcohol. But, she speculates that the same factors that cause problems in the short run also play a role in longer-term problems.

Dr. Sharon Wilsnack, of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, says metabolism and the simple fact that women in general are smaller than men likely play a big role in how they are affected by alcohol.

"There are gender differences in gastric metabolism," she says. "Women seem to have a little less of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. So even if we drink the same amount, we get a more concentrated dose in the blood stream and that has more effect on all of the organ system."

"Also, women have proportionately less body water than men, so the alcohol is less diluted," she adds.

Alcoholism is reported to be about three times more common in men than women. But Wilsnack suspects that because alcohol addiction is less socially acceptable for women, many cases go unreported.

"I think there are probably many more alcoholic women than we may realize," she says. "There's a greater social stigma for women than men and, consequently, fewer women will seek help."

The NIAAA says that besides the physical problems, women who abuse alcohol are at risk of sexual assault, are more likely to engage in unprotected sex, contract sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, and have unwanted pregnancies.

What to Do: To learn more about alcohol abuse, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, or the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.

SOURCES: Interviews with Kyle Grazier, Dr. P.H., study author, and associate professor, department of health management and policy, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Sharon Wilsnack, Ph.D., a Chester Fritz distinguished professor, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Grand Forks, N.D., and author of the book "Gender and Alcohol" (Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1997); March 2001 presentation, First World Congress on Women's Mental Health, Berlin, Germany; abstract from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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