Girls catch up with boy’s drinking habits

The Austin American Stateman article on drinking habits reported that surveys show girls and college-age women are binge-drinking more often these days.

Recent surveys suggest that today’s girls and college-age women are abusing alcohol in ways not seen in previous generations — by binge drinking more often and at earlier ages.

Such drinking patterns have immediate consequences for young people of both sexes: They can lead to failure in school, increase the chances of a car accident and even cause subtle brain damage.

For girls and women, however, the effects might be particularly dire.

They’re much more likely than boys or young men to experience physical and sexual assault while intoxicated. And studies show that alcohol takes a much greater physical toll on women than on men — in a much shorter time. A rising rate of heavy drinking among today’s teen girls might signal a future women’s health crisis.

“Girls’ drinking absolutely has implications for their long-term health,” says David Jernigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. “They are hurting their odds — a lot.”

Although the majority of adolescent girls and young women do not binge drink (estimates of those who do range from 16 percent to 27 percent), three reputable, national surveys suggest binge drinking is holding steady or increasing among girls even as such behavior is declining somewhat in boys. Binge drinking is usually defined as five or more drinks consumed in one setting.

Moreover, surveys show younger girls are starting to drink around the same age as boys and with similar drinking patterns.

Their choices are changing, too. Fourteen percent of the girls who binged in 1991 said they drank hard liquor, said Jernigan, citing unpublished data from the most recent Monitoring the Future survey, a national poll conducted annually by the University of Michigan. But that figure had risen to 18.2 percent in 2004. The survey also showed eighth-grade girls with a higher binge drinking rate than eighth-grade boys: 11.8 percent versus 10.8 percent.

“The gender gap for young kids has effectively closed,” says Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “If you look at eighth- and ninth-grade girls, they are drinking, smoking and using drugs at the same rates as boys are. But the main problem is that the physiological impact is much stronger on girls than on boys.”

Alcohol is dispersed in the body by water. The more water in the body, the more diluted the alcohol. Women have less water in their bodies and more fat, which holds alcohol. An enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, that helps metabolize alcohol is less active in women.

Thus, drink for drink, women’s brains and organs are exposed to a higher concentration of alcohol compared with men. For that reason, women are more likely to develop inflammation of the liver and to die of cirrhosis.

“We know that two years of a woman’s drinking equals 10 years of a man’s,” says Becky Flood, executive director of New Directions for Women, a nonprofit substance abuse treatment center in Costa Mesa, Calif. “What alcohol does to the body of a woman in her developmental years is very damaging. We even see cognitive impairment in women.”

Women are also more likely to become dependent on alcohol faster than men, says Foster, and that’s why the statistics that show girls drinking at younger ages and drinking heavily by college age are of particular concern. A girl who starts drinking before age 14 is four times more likely to become an alcoholic than someone who didn’t drink before age 21.

The rapidity with which alcohol problems can escalate in women should serve as a warning to girls and their parents, experts say.

“Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It’s very hard to define it in its early stages,” Flood said. “There is a fine, gray line of where it turns from abuse into alcoholism. But when you binge drink and have blackouts and can’t remember what happened or get a DUI, then the binge drinking already is a problem.”

The changing face of alcohol use among girls has led to efforts to better understand why girls drink, how their drinking differs from that of boys and what measures are successful to prevent alcohol abuse.

Many substance abuse organizations have criticized the alcohol industry for advertising and marketing that, they say, may entice more girls to drink. The trend in sweet alcoholic beverages, such as “alcopops” (malt liquor drinks) and packaged cups of fruit-flavored gelatin and alcohol, may appeal more to girls and young drinkers, experts say.

Several other factors may lead adolescent girls to drink, including the desire to feel less inhibited in social situations, to control their moods and to compete with boys by showing they can drink as much.

A majority of high school kids might not be drinking, says Elizabeth D’Amico, a clinical psychologist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., “but what gets talked about on Monday morning is who passed out or threw up in the bushes.

“What is really important to kids is what they think their peers are doing,” she said. “The key thing is perception — it’s not necessarily reality.” And Foster says girls appear to be more influenced by their friends’ drinking behavior than boys are.

Problem drinking in women may also be more likely to escape attention from medical professionals. Women are less likely to seek or be referred for treatment than men — and only 38 percent of substance abuse programs in the U.S. are designed for women, despite research that shows women do better in gender-specific programs, Foster said.

“We know a lot more now about women and alcohol. But the knowledge that has been generated has not made it into our medical practice,” D’Amico said.

Click here for the full story as reported in the Austin American Statesman

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