15 Jun 2021 Women now drink as much as men — not so much for pleasure, but to cope
That common image of who is affected by alcohol disorders, echoed throughout pop culture, was misleading over a decade ago. And it’s even less representative today.
For nearly a century, women have been closing the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge-drinking and alcohol use disorder. What was previously a 3-1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women is closer to 1-to-1 globally, a 2016 analysis of several dozen studies suggested.
And the latest US data from 2019 shows that women in their teens and early 20s reported drinking and getting drunk at higher rates than their male peers — in some cases for the first time since researchers began measuring such behaviour.
This trend parallels the rise in mental health concerns among young women, and researchers worry that the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could amplify both patterns.
“It’s not only that we’re seeing women drinking more, but that they’re really being affected by this physically and mental health-wise,” says Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, who has studied addiction in women.
Research shows women suffer health consequences of alcohol — liver disease, heart disease and cancer — more quickly than men and even with lower levels of consumption.
Perhaps most concerning is that the rising gender equality in alcohol use doesn’t extend to the recognition or treatment of alcohol disorders, Sugarman says. So even as some women drink more, they’re often less likely to get the help they need.
Drinking to cope
Although the gender gap in alcohol consumption is narrowing among all ages, the reasons differ. For people over 26, women are increasing their alcohol consumption faster than men. Among teens and young adults, however, there’s an overall decline in drinking. The decline is simply slower for women.
That may sound like progress, says Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But it may indicate larger underlying issues.
“We have a real concern that while there might be fewer people drinking, many of those who are drinking might be doing so specifically to try to cope,” White says. “And that is problematic.”
Research suggests that people who drink to cope — as opposed to drinking for pleasure — have a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder. And while every individual’s reasons for drinking are different, studies have found that women are more likely to drink to cope than men.
Women are statistically more likely to experience childhood abuse or sexual assault than men. In recent years, studies have found rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide are climbing among teenage and young adult women. That could be driving their alcohol use, White says
And the layers of stress, isolation and trauma from COVID-19 could make things worse.
One study that looked at alcohol’s effects on college students early in the pandemic found increased alcohol use among those who reported higher levels of stress and anxiety. And several studies found women were more likely to report rises in drinking during the pandemic, especially if they experienced increased stress.
“For us to address issues with alcohol, we also need to address these pervasive issues with mental health,” White says. “They are all related.”
What’s more, despite alcohol’s temporary calming properties, it can actually increase anxiety and depression, research suggests; some studies show it may lead to depression more quickly in women than in men.
When Gillian Tietz began drinking in graduate school, she found a glass of wine helped ease her stress. But as soon as the glass emptied, her concerns worsened. Within a year, she began drinking daily and couldn’t sleep. Anxiety kept her up at night, she says, and she started having suicidal thoughts.
It was only when Tietz took a brief reprieve from alcohol that she noticed the connection. Suddenly, the suicidal thoughts stopped.
“That made the decision to quit really powerful,” says Tietz, 30, who now hosts a podcast called Sober Powered. “I knew exactly what alcohol did to me.”
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