Substantial increases in alcohol dependence found in women

New research from School of Medicine investigators is calling into question some assumptions about drinking and alcohol dependence. Previous epidemiologic studies have tended to find that rates of alcohol use and dependence are higher in younger people than older. Most also found that men tended to have more alcohol problems than women.

“There’s been a great deal of social, economic and political progress for women in the years since World War II,” said Richard A. Grucza, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychiatry and first author of a study published this month in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. “It seems there also may be a downside to some of the advances, in terms of the risk for problems such as alcohol dependence.”

Grucza and his colleagues noted that in most studies of alcohol use and dependence, younger people reported higher lifetime rates of alcohol problems than older people. Because older people have lived longer and had more time to develop problems, it would seem the reverse should be true. But study after study showed more problems in younger people.

So Grucza’s team looked at data from two studies of alcohol use gathered 10 years apart. They studied data from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey, gathered in 1991-92, and from the National Epidemiologic Surgery on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which was gathered 10 years later, in 2001-02. Participants were the same age at the time they participated in the study but actually were separated by 10 years, allowing the researchers to note trends.

“The biggest trend we noticed was increased alcohol use and dependence among women,” Grucza said. “Women born after World War II are less likely to abstain from alcohol and more likely to be alcohol dependent. But we didn’t see any significant changes in use or dependence among men.”

He said the findings help to explain a “closing gender gap” in alcoholism that has been noted in several other studies.

“What an alcoholic looks like has changed,” Grucza said. “Although we might not think of a 35-year-old woman as the template for alcohol dependence, heavy alcohol use at younger ages, combined with greater alcohol use by women, means alcoholics are different now than in the past.”

Regarding the other observation that most studies find that younger drinkers are more likely to report alcohol problems than their older counterparts, Grucza said that trend remains.

But by controlling for some variables between the studies conducted 10 years apart, he said two things are clear: First, both men and women now appear to be drinking more heavily at younger ages. And he said it appears that in epidemiologic studies, younger people are likely to overreport problems with alcohol, while older people tend to underreport them.