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Article Summary

Young Women and Drinking

On the heels of a study revealing an ever-increasing number of college girls are drinking to excess comes a new report confirming women are more vulnerable to alcohol-related liver, brain and heart damage. These findings, combined with the fact that girls are experimenting with alcohol at ever-younger ages, underscore the importance of early detection and treatment for women with drinking problems.

"It is imperative that young women are educated about their unique health risks, particularly with respect to alcohol, and that research is done to design specific preventative strategies and treatments to address this population," said Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women's Health Research.

More Coeds Abusing Alcohol
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, led by Henry Wechsler PhD, conducted a survey on more than 10,000 full-time students at 119 four-year colleges. Binge drinkers were defined as women who had four or more, or men who had five or more, drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks before completing the survey. Frequent binge drinkers consumed these amounts at least three times in the previous two weeks.

Survey results revealed that the proportion of students who admitted to binge drinking, 44 percent, was the same as in 1993, 1997, and 1999, despite university efforts to reduce binge drinking among students. The percentage of women drinkers, however, sharply increased.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking at all-women's schools increased from about 24 to 32 percent since 1993.

Furthermore, the proportion of frequent binge drinkers jumped from approximately 5 percent to 12 percent among women at single-sex colleges. Binge and frequent binge drinking also increased among women attending coed schools in this time frame, although to a lesser extent. The results were published in the March 2002 issue of the Journal of American College Health.

"Our previous surveys found that attending college at an all-women's school was very protective [in terms of binge drinking]," said Wechsler in a prepared statement, "That seems to be less so now."

Sobering News for Women Who Drink

Women suffer more severe health consequences after abusing alcohol for shorter amounts of time than their male counterparts, according to Shelly F. Greenfield, MD of the Harvard Medical School in Boston, who recently reviewed the topic for the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. Several studies show that women are more prone to liver damage, brain damage, heart muscle disease called cardiomyopathy, and disorders of other muscles as a result of alcohol abuse. Furthermore, a 20-year study in Sweden found that alcoholism boosted the risk of death by five times in women compared with three times in men.

Why Women?

Experts are still unsure why alcoholic women are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of their addiction, but a number of metabolic and physiologic differences probably play a role.

Even after adjusting for body weight, after consuming the same amount of alcohol, women develop higher blood alcohol levels and sustain them for longer amounts of time compared with men.

Women tend to have a higher proportion of fatty tissue and less total body water content compared with men. Alcohol dissolves more readily in water than in fat. As a result, compared to a man, a woman has less water in her body in which to dilute the alcohol.

In addition, women have lower levels of an enzyme that helps break down alcohol. Before alcohol enters the blood stream, it passes through the stomach where some of it is broken down by alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). Since women have lower levels of ADH activity in their stomachs, a greater percentage of alcohol reaches their blood as compared to men.

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