06 Mar 2013
Alcoholism is the classic term for patterns of alcohol abuse that result from a chemical dependence on alcohol’s presence in the body. Along with other abusive patterns of alcohol use, it belongs to a group of conditions known as alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Both men and women can develop a number of serious short- and long-term health complications as a consequence of alcoholism. However, while men become alcoholics more frequently than women, women alcoholics have higher risks than men for developing certain alcoholism-related health problems. In addition, female alcoholics die prematurely much more frequently than male alcoholics.
For any given level of intake, women have a greater sensitivity to alcohol’s effects than men. Three physical factors help explain this phenomenon. First, relative to overall size and weight, women’s bodies contain less water than men’s bodies. This is relevant because water dilutes alcohol; therefore, in an environment that contains relatively little water, alcohol remain relatively undiluted and produces intensified effects. Second, compared to men’s bodies, women’s bodies apparently have less active forms of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which plays a key role in breaking alcohol down and rendering it harmless; in real-world terms, reduced alcohol dehydrogenase activity translates into higher levels of alcohol lingering in the bloodstream. In addition, some women may be more susceptible to alcohol’s effects during certain phases of their menstrual cycles.
Because of their relative susceptibility to alcohol’s effects, women have a lower recommended maximum daily/weekly alcohol intake than men, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains. On any given day, the average woman can safely drink as much as a single drink of beer, wine, or hard liquor (the specific size of a standard drink varies according to the type of alcohol under consideration). In any given week, the average woman can safely consume as many as seven total drinks. By comparison, the average man under the age of 65 can safely consume two drinks a day and 14 drinks per week. For a variety of reasons not directly related to alcoholism, men over the age of 65 need to follow the same alcohol consumption guidelines as women.
The Consequences of Alcoholism
As indicated previously, women abuse alcohol and/or develop alcoholism less frequently than men. In fact, women account for only roughly one-third of all of the alcoholics in the United States. However, female alcoholics sometimes experience more severely negative health outcomes than male alcoholics. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcoholic women have higher chances of developing cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and other alcohol-related liver disorders than their male counterparts. Compared to alcoholic men, alcoholic women also have higher risks for the onset of damage in the tissues that form the heart muscle; these heightened risks extend to women who abuse alcohol but don’t have all of the hallmarks of alcoholism. In addition, current research suggests that women alcoholics have relatively high chances of developing alcohol-related memory problems and physical shrinkage of their overall brain size. Women also apparently develop these problems more quickly than men.
In comparison to other women, women alcoholics have relatively high chances of developing certain forms of cancer, including cancers of the breast, colon, throat, liver, mouth, and esophagus. In the case of breast cancer, alcoholic women’s risks go up as their rate of alcohol consumption increases. Apart from disease-related risks, alcoholic women have increased risks for exposure to rape and other forms of sexual assault. These assault-related risks extend to women who participate in a form of alcohol abuse called binge drinking, which involves consuming enough alcohol within a two-hour timeframe to become legally intoxicated; most women reach a legally intoxicated state (marked by a blood alcohol content equal to or in excess of 0.08 percent) when they consume four or more drinks within this span of time.
When considered together, men and women alcoholics between the ages of 18 and 64 die an average of 20 years sooner than people without alcohol dependencies, according to the result of a 14-year study published in published in 2012 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. However, when the two genders are considered separately, women alcoholics in this age range die twice as often as alcoholic men. Compared to the general population, alcoholic women between the ages of 18 and 64 die more than four times as frequently. The authors of the study note that their results may somewhat overestimate women alcoholics’ risks for fatal outcomes, but believe any overestimation (if it exists) is in terms of specific percentages rather than the basic results of their research.