In recent years, much of the dialogue on substance abuse has focused solely on opioid addiction. Opioid addiction is a serious problem that resulted in nearly 50,000 deaths just last year.
Yet, studies show that in the past 10 years, deaths related to alcohol abuse have risen between 35 and 50 percent. Alcohol abuse accounts for roughly 90,000 deaths a year, nearly double the number of opioid-related deaths.
And nowhere is alcohol abuse growing more rapidly than where it’s often overlooked altogether: among women.
More Americans Are Dying from Alcohol Abuse Than Opioids
According to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the number of deaths related to alcohol rose by 35% between 2007 and 2017.
While more men still suffer, and die, from alcoholism than women, the gap is closing fast. The increase of alcohol-related deaths among women in this period was an alarming 85%, compared to a 29% increase among men.
The study also suggested a shift in alcohol-related deaths by age. Alcohol-related deaths fell 16% among teenagers, while among adults aged 45-64 they rose about 25%. A USA Today article wrote, “People’s risk of dying, of course, increases as they age. What’s new is that alcohol is increasingly the cause.”
Another study, published in a 2018 edition of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, looked at emergency room visits related to binge drinking between 2006 and 2014. Researchers found that such ER visits fell among teens, but they rose among the middle-aged, especially women.
And the details weren’t pretty. Typical ER visits included draining cirrhosis-related fluid from swollen bellies and clearing lungs of aspirated vomit.
There are a number of physical and social factors contributing to the disproportionate increase in alcohol-related deaths among older women and women at large. Most obvious is a lower alcohol tolerance.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as consuming enough drinks to achieve a blood alcohol concentration to 0.08%. This is about five drinks for men and only four for women. The definition of “heavy drinking” also reflects a lower alcohol tolerance in women; heavy drinking is 15 drinks in a week for men, and only 8 for women.
Among older women, the body is even slower to process and excrete alcohol. Drinking the same amount, women in their 60s and 70s will achieve a higher blood alcohol level than women in their 30s and 40s.
Alcohol-related female health issues include:
- Liver disease: Women are more likely to develop alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and to die from cirrhosis.
- Brain disease: Research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage.
- Heart disease: Alcoholic women are susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease.
- Breast cancer: One drink per day can increase the risk of breast cancer in some women, especially those who are postmenopausal or have a family history of breast cancer.
High alcohol consumption in women may be correlated with certain social factors. For example, people were sexually abused either during childhood or adulthood are considered far more likely to abuse alcohol, as are those suffering from postpartum depression.
The culture surrounding alcohol, also, differs between men and women. As stated in the USA Today article, alcoholism in men is often very noticeable, punctuated by public outbursts like bar fights, DUIs, or the loss of a job.
Comparatively, alcoholism in women sometimes manifests in secret. For example, women who feel uncomfortable drinking in public may just to decompress with a glass of wine with dinner, or several. Such habits can quickly turn in alcohol abuse hiding in plain sight.
A sense of shame can confound the issue. Women, especially mothers, suffering from alcohol addiction may be more embarrassed to reach out to loved ones or professionals for help than their male counterparts.
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