The Changing Patterns of Women’s Drinking and Their Impact on Public Health

Elizabeth Sierminski

Dr. Barbara McCrady recalls interviewing a woman who used to pass out on her bed before her husband came home from work. Suspecting something was amiss, the couple spent two years visiting sleep specialists and neurologists.

Nobody suspected that the cause of her early slumbers was alcohol. The woman was drinking one liter of alcohol per day.

McCrady, distinguished professor of psychology, University of New Mexico and Director, Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions, was among the speakers for a congressional briefing titled, The Changing Patterns of Women’s Drinking and Their Impact on Public Health, at the Rayburn House Office Building on June 22, 2017.

“This underscores the importance of screening,” added Dr. Deidra Roach, Medical Project Officer, Division of Treatment and Recovery Research, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Friends of the NIAAA hosted the briefing to shed light on the public health impact of increased alcohol-use among women. McCrady and Roach joined Dr. George Koob, Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and Martha Woodruff, a writer who is 26-years-sober from alcohol use disorder (AUD). Dr. Carlo DiClemente, Chair, NIAAA and professor of psychology, University of Maryland Baltimore County, moderated the panel.

Koob noted that drinking and binge drinking among women is on the rise. Roach attributed this to changing cultural norms. She suggested screening for AUD, not only in primary care and mental health facilities but across the spectrum of care.

“Drinking heavily is like bathing your body in toxic soup,” said Roach “Women have less body water and body fat. Health problems occur sooner and progress faster because organs are exposed to higher concentrations of alcohol over longer periods of time.”

Women are more likely than men to develop alcohol-related liver disease, alcohol-related heart disease, and alcohol-related brain damage but less likely to receive treatment, said McCrady.

She added that women typically receive minimal support from their spouses, depend on public insurance, and fear losing their children if they admit to excessive alcohol use. Women perceive the treatment system as male-centric and sometimes find it uncomfortable to receive care in a mixed-gender setting. At least 55% of women with AUD report a history of sexual or physical assault.

Treatment for women with AUD should be female-centric and holistically address unique needs, such as childcare and job training, said McCrady. “It’s about helping women see that their strengths and weaknesses do not need to be tweaked with alcohol,” Woodruff added. 

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Brenda Canine, PhD; McLaughlin Research Institute, Montana