Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue – Part 5

Drinking Among Women in Young and Middle Adulthood

Young women in their twenties and early thirties are more likely to drink than older women. No one factor predicts whether a woman will have problems with alcohol, or at what age she is most at risk. However, there are some life experiences that seem to make it more likely that women will have drinking problems.

Heavy drinking and drinking problems among White women are most common in younger age groups. Among African American women, however, drinking problems are more common in middle age than youth. A woman's ethnic origins—and the extent to which she adopts the attitudes of mainstream vs. her native culture—influence how and when she will drink. Hispanic women who are more "mainstream" are more likely to drink and to drink heavily (that is, to drink at least once a week and to have five or more drinks at one time).

Research suggests that women who have trouble with their closest relationships tend to drink more than other women. Heavy drinking is more common among women who have never married, are living unmarried with a partner, or are divorced or separated. (The effect of divorce on a woman's later drinking may depend on whether she is already drinking heavily in her marriage.) A woman whose husband drinks heavily is more likely than other women to drink too much.

Many studies have found that women who suffered childhood sexual abuse are more likely to have drinking problems.

Depression is closely linked to heavy drinking in women, and women who drink at home alone are more likely than others to have later drinking problems.

Stress and Drinking

Stress is a common theme in women's lives. Research confirms that one of the reasons people drink is to help them cope with stress. However, it is not clear just how stress may lead to problem drinking. Heavy drinking by itself causes stress in a job and family. Many factors, including family history, shape how much a woman will use alcohol to cope with stress. A woman's past and usual drinking habits are important. Different people have different expectations about the effect of alcohol on stress. How a woman handles stress, and the support she has to manage it, also may affect whether she uses alcohol in response to stress.

Consequences of Unsafe Drinking

  • The number of female drivers involved in alcohol-related fatal traffic crashes is going up, even as the number of male drivers involved in such crashes has decreased. This trend may reflect the increasing number of women who drive themselves, even after drinking, as opposed to riding as a passenger.
  • Long-term health problems from heavy drinking include liver, heart, and brain disease; suppression of the immune system; and cancer.
  • Because women are more likely to become pregnant in their twenties and thirties, this age group faces the greatest risk of having babies with the growth and mental impairments of fetal alcohol syndrome, which is caused by drinking during pregnancy.

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Source: NIH Publication No. 08–4956
Revised 2008

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