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Alcoholism Gender Gap Is Closing

Changing social mores, opportunities for women make it not just a 'man's disease' anymore

TUESDAY, May 6 (HealthDay News) -- Drinking and alcohol dependence has increased substantially among women, particularly white and Hispanic women born since 1945, new study finds.

Alcohol use and dependency appeared to remain stable for men, while young Americans report having more lifetime alcohol problems than older Americans, despite having had less time to develop issues with drinking.

The findings were published in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"We found that for women born after World War II, there are lower levels of abstaining from alcohol, and higher levels of alcohol dependence, even when looking only at women who drank," the study's corresponding author, Richard A. Grucza, an epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement. "However, we didn't see any significant tendency for more recently born men to have lower levels of abstention or higher levels of alcohol dependence."

The researchers' findings came from analyzing two large, national surveys conducted 10 years apart (1991-1992 and 2001-2002). The polls compared lifetime alcohol-use rates from the same age groups and demographics.

The "closing gender-gap in alcoholism" may be due to higher levels of problems facing women, while men have been more or less steady in their levels of dependence, he said.

"Clearly, there were many changes in the cultural environment for women born in the '40s, '50s and '60s compared to women born earlier," Grucza said. "Women entered the work force, were more likely to go to college, were less hampered by gender stereotypes, and had more purchasing power. They were freer to engage in a range of behaviors that were culturally or practically off-limits, and these behaviors probably would have included excessive drinking and alcohol problems."

Shelly F. Greenfield, associate clinical director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program at McLean Hospital, added to Grucza's assessment.

"One possible explanation is that between 1934 and 1964, the social acceptability of women's drinking increased. As it was more socially acceptable for women to drink, a greater number of them became drinkers. Because women have a heightened vulnerability to the effects of alcohol -- that is, greater blood alcohol levels at similar doses of alcohol -- we may therefore see a concomitant rise in alcohol dependence among those who ever drank."

Another potential factor: immigrants arriving to America from cultures with more conservative values about drinking tend to stick with their native cultural norms, but their children are more likely to follow comparatively lax U.S. norms regarding alcohol.

"We can think of U.S. culture as having been traditionally dominated by white men," added Grucza. "As women have immigrated into this culture, they have become acculturated with regard to alcohol use."

He said the added barrier of race may be what is keeping black women, who still have the lowest rates of drinking among the demographic groups looked at, from adopting the alcohol-use standards of the dominant U.S. culture.

Greenfield suggested that targeting females with gender-specific prevention programs might lower drinking rates or delay when drinking begins, which could help prevent later alcohol problems.

"It would also be helpful to educate women about the gender differences in metabolism of alcohol, and the associated heightened female vulnerability to alcohol's adverse health consequences at lower doses than men," she said.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about recognizing a drinking problem.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCES: Washington University School of Medicine/Harvard Medical School, news release, May 4, 2008

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