Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue – Part 3

Heavy Drinking

An estimated 5.3 million women in the United States drink in a way that threatens their health, safety, and general well-being. A strong case can be made that heavy drinking is more risky for women than men:

  • Heavy drinking increases a woman's risk of becoming a victim of violence and sexual assault.
  • Drinking over the long term is more likely to damage a woman's health than a man's, even if the woman has been drinking less alcohol or for a shorter length of time than the man.

The health effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism are serious. Some specific health problems include:

  • Alcoholic liver disease: Women are more likely than men to develop alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and to die from cirrhosis.
  • Brain disease: Most alcoholics have some loss of mental function, reduced brain size, and changes in the function of brain cells. Research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage.
  • Cancer: Many studies report that heavy drinking increases the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol also is linked to cancers of the digestive track and of the head and neck (the risk is especially high in smokers who also drink heavily).
  • Heart disease: Chronic heavy drinking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Among heavy drinkers, women are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease, even though women drink less alcohol over a lifetime than men.

Finally, many alcoholics smoke; smoking in itself can cause serious long-term health consequences.

Alcohol in Women's Lives: Safe Drinking Over a Lifetime

The pressures to drink more than what is safe—and the consequences—change as the roles that mark a woman's life span change. Knowing the signs that drinking may be a problem instead of a pleasure can help women who choose to drink do so without harm to themselves or others.

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Source: NIH Publication No. 08–4956
Revised 2008

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014