Women have higher risk than men for certain serious medical consequences of alcohol use, including liver, brain and heart damage, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
A recent NIAAA Alcohol Alert reports that women achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood and become more impaired than men after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol. They are more susceptible than men to alcohol-related organ damage and to trauma resulting from traffic crashes and interpersonal violence.
"We know that some of this risk is due to gender differences in metabolism; it also could quite possibly be due to gender-related differences in brain chemistry, in genetic risk factors, or to entirely different factors that are currently unknown," said NIAAA Director Enoch Gordis, M.D.
Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than men. Women generally achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.
The following are some of the areas in which women experience more effects than men who drink alcohol at the same rate as women:
Liver Damage-- Compared with men, women develop alcohol-induced liver disease over a shorter period of time and after consuming less alcohol. Women are also more likely than men to develop alcoholic hepatitis and to die from cirrhosis.
Brain Damage-- Women may be more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage. Using MRI, researchers found that a brain region involved in coordinating multiple brain functions was significantly smaller among alcoholic women compared with both nonalcoholic women and alcoholic men.
Heart Disease -- Among heavier drinkers, research shows similar rates of alcohol-associated heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy) for both men and women, despite women's 60 percent lower lifetime alcohol use.
Breast Cancer -- Many studies report that moderate to heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk for breast cancer, although one recent study found no increased breast cancer risk associated with consumption of up to one drink per day, the maximum drinking level reported by most women.
Traffic Crashes-- Although women are less likely than men to drive after drinking and to be involved in fatal alcohol-related crashes, women have a higher relative risk of driver fatality than men at similar blood alcohol concentrations. Laboratory studies of the effects of alcohol on responding to visual cues and other tasks suggest that there may be gender differences in how alcohol affects the performance of driving tasks.
Researchers are currently attempting to identify gender-specific genetic factors whose interactions might contribute to differential sensitivity to alcohol's effects.
"The alcohol research field has begun to recognize the importance of understanding gender differences in how alcohol is used, in the consequences of alcohol use, and in the development of alcohol dependence," said Dr. Gordis.
"The more science can tell us about gender-related aspects of alcohol-related problems -- not only what they are but why -- the better job we will be able to do to prevent and treat those problems in all populations" he said.