Women are Drinking More, but Get Less Help for Alcohol Abuse

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Women’s drinking habits have changed over time. A 2017 report published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that high-risk drinking climbed by almost 60 percent for women from 2001-2002 to 2012-2013. The researchers defined high-risk drinking for women as having four or more drinks at least one day per week during the previous 12 months.

The way men and women process alcohol differs. Women may be more vulnerable to the health repercussions of alcohol use than men, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“[Women] can develop cirrhosis with less alcohol and in a shorter time frame. The hypothesis is that certain hormones make women more susceptible, though we don’t know exactly why they are so much more susceptible,” said Dr. Jessica Mellinger, lead author of the recent Research Society on Alcoholism study and a Michigan Medicine hepatologist, in a statement about earlier research.

Given that alcoholism has historically been considered a disease that primarily affects men, women may be slipping through the cracks in getting a diagnosis and treatment.

“There’s a real bias [in the medical community] against asking women about substance use disorders or even suspecting there might be a problem,” said Carise.

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Traditional screening tools, like medical questionnaires, may fail to detect drinking problems in women, as well.

“Most of these questionnaires were validated primarily on men,” said Brown. “We need far better research and tools focused on women and alcohol.”

Improving the diagnostic tools and encouraging doctors to ask all patients about their substance use habits could help women become more aware of potential addictions, Brown and Carise agreed.

Furthermore, developing more gender-specific alcohol abuse programs may increase the number of women who receive treatment and benefit from it.

“There are subgroups of women, such as those with certain mental health disorders or a history of trauma, who are much more likely to benefit from gender-specific treatment, and some women will only go for treatment if it’s separate from men,” said Carise.

Doctors hope the latest findings will help break down the biggest barrier alcoholics face to getting treatment: the stigma.

“Effective treatment works, and people can go on to have great lives. The recovery can be so transformative for someone, so we need to keep pushing people to get the care they need,” said Carise.