With so much attention focused on women’s equality, it is easy to forget that the sexes have meaningful inherent differences. Some of those differences can be mediated, others cannot. A recently concluded study coming out of Germany highlights the greater risks incurred by women who over-drink not only compared to men, but even compared to other non-drinking women. In short, women pay a much higher price for alcoholism.
The German study was long-range, extending over a 14 year period. The study included over 4,000 subjects between the ages of 18 and 64. Within the study group, 153 subjects were considered alcohol-dependent. Only 149 of these subjects were able to be successfully tracked over the 14 year life of the study. That 149 member segment was made up of 119 alcohol-dependent men and 30 alcohol-dependent women. Each person’s alcohol-dependency was determined using the German equivalent of our own Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM-IV).
The longitudinal study was particularly helpful in defining how alcoholism impacts women. Perhaps the most important thing learned was that alcohol-dependency shortens a woman’s lifespan considerably. Alcohol-dependent women experienced an annual death rate that was 4.6 times greater than that for non-drinking women. And even though alcohol-dependent men also died sooner, their annual death rates increased only 1.9 times. Thus the risk of early death for alcoholic women is almost five times greater compared to sober women and twice that for alcoholic men.
Part of the reason that alcoholism is more deadly for women has to do with their metabolism. Women, with slower metabolisms, are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. A woman can consume fewer alcoholic beverages and still experience the ill effects comparable to a man who drinks more. Women not only experience the negative effects of alcohol more readily on each occasion but the abuse of years accumulates more quickly for them as well. The fact that it takes women longer to metabolize the toxins in alcohol leaves them more vulnerable to liver disease, heart disease, brain damage and breast cancer.
The German study furthermore showed that receiving treatment for alcohol-dependency did not help to extend life spans. Germany provides highly specialized inpatient care and treatment for alcoholism. Yet receiving this treatment did not positively affect the recipient’s longevity. The study also showed no impact from a person’s experience of co-existing psychological conditions. Alcohol abuse appeared to be the strongest determiner on life expectancy. Those with alcohol dependency can expect to enjoy 20 fewer years of life than non-drinkers.
Women need to be especially careful when it comes to alcohol use. Women who drink three alcoholic beverages per day are considered high-risk drinkers. And, unlike some other mental health conditions, women are more hesitant to seek help for alcohol abuse. Whether due to shame or a desire to protect loved ones from pain, women who suffer most from alcoholism are the least likely to get help overcoming the problem.