Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue – Part 7

Women and Problem Drinking

Fewer women than men drink. However, among the heaviest drinkers, women equal or surpass men in the number of problems that result from their drinking. For example, female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than those of male alcoholics, including deaths from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease and stroke, and liver cirrhosis.

Alcohol Abuse: An Individual Decision

A woman's genetic makeup shapes how quickly she feels the effects of alcohol, how pleasant drinking is for her, and how drinking alcohol over the long term will affect her health, even the chances that she could have problems with alcohol. A family history of alcohol problems, a woman's risk of illnesses like heart disease and breast cancer, medications she is taking, and age are among the factors for each woman to weigh in deciding when, how much, and how often to drink.

What Are Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that is harmful to the drinker or others. The following situations, occurring repeatedly in a 12-month period, would be indicators of alcohol abuse:

  • Missing work or skipping child care responsibilities because of drinking
  • Drinking in situations that are dangerous, such as before or while driving
  • Being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for hurting someone while drunk
  • Continuing to drink even though there are ongoing alcohol-related tensions with friends and family.

Alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a disease. It is chronic, or lifelong, and it can be both progressive and life threatening. Alcoholism is based in the brain. Alcohol's short-term effects on the brain are what cause someone to feel high, relaxed, or sleepy after drinking. In some people, alcohol's long-term effects can change the way the brain reacts to alcohol, so that the urge to drink can be as compelling as the hunger for food. Both a person's genetic makeup and his or her environment contribute to the risk for alcoholism. The following are some of the typical characteristics of alcoholism:

  • Craving: a strong need, or compulsion, to drink
  • Loss of control: the inability to stop drinking once a person has begun
  • Physical dependence: withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking
  • Tolerance: the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to get "high."

Know the Risks

Research suggests that a woman is more likely to drink excessively if she has any of the following:

  • Parents and siblings (or other blood relatives) with alcohol problems
  • A partner who drinks heavily
  • The ability to "hold her liquor" more than others
  • A history of depression
  • A history of childhood physical or sexual abuse.

The presence of any of these factors is a good reason to be especially careful with drinking.

How Do You Know if You Have a Problem?

Answering the following four questions can help you find out if you or someone close to you has a drinking problem.

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

One "yes" answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. If you responded "yes" to more than one question, it is very likely that you have a problem with alcohol. In either case, it is important that you see your health care provider right away to discuss your responses to these questions.

Even if you answered "no" to all of the above questions, if you are having drinking-related problems with your job, relationships, health, or with the law, you should still seek help.

Treatment for Alcohol Problems

Treatment for an alcohol problem depends on its severity. Women who have alcohol problems but who are not yet alcohol dependent may be able to stop or reduce their drinking with minimal help. Routine doctor visits are an ideal time to discuss alcohol use and its potential problems. Health care providers can help a woman take a good hard look at what effect alcohol is having on her life and can give advice on ways to stop drinking or to cut down.

Research Directions

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports about 90 percent of the Nation's research on alcohol use and its effects. The goal of this research is to better understand the causes and consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction, and to find new ways to prevent and treat alcohol problems.

Finding out what makes some women drink too much is the first step to preventing alcohol problems in women. Scientists are studying the role of genetics and family environment in increasing or decreasing the risk of alcohol problems. They also are studying other features of a woman's life, such as the type of job she has; whether she combines family and work; life changes like marriage, divorce, and the birth and departure of children; infertility; relationship and sexual problems; and ethnic background.

Scientists want to know why women in general seem to develop long-term health problems from drinking more quickly than men. Researchers are examining issues like alcohol and breast cancer in women, and the extent to which alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease, and possibly osteoporosis, in some women.

Finally, research is helping determine how to identify women who may be at risk for alcohol problems, and to ensure that treatment will be effective.

The Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) serves as the focal point for women's health research at NIH. ORWH works in a variety of ways to encourage and support researchers to find answers to questions about diseases and conditions that affect women and how to keep women healthy, and to establish a research agenda for the future. ORWH encourages women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to participate in clinical studies to help increase knowledge of the health of women of all cultures, and to understand the health-related similarities and differences between women and men. The office also provides opportunities and support for the advancement of women in biomedical careers.

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Source: NIH Publication No. 08–4956
Revised 2008

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