Deaths related to excessive alcohol consumption are rapidly rising in the United States, especially among women, a new study finds.
While drinking is still killing more men than women, the rate of alcohol-related deaths is rising faster among women, according to the report published Friday in JAMA Network Open.
“The gender gap is narrowing,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Ibraheem Karaye, a professor of population health and director of the health science program at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
Previous studies found that women are drinking greater amounts of alcohol, with binging becoming increasingly common, and that may at least partially explain the rising rates of complications like cirrhosis, he said.
In an analysis of two decades of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Karaye and his colleagues found that women’s alcohol-related mortality rate rose by 14.7%, as compared to 12.5% in men.
Changing attitudes toward heavy drinking by women may partly explain the rise in the number of deaths. Women’s alcohol consumption has been normalized, said Dr. Peter Martin, an addiction expert and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and pharmacology at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.
Since the 1900s, there’s been a progressive increase in drinking by women and they’re getting closer to men, he said.
“It’s become more and more socially acceptable for women to drink as much as men,” said Martin, who was not involved in the new research.
What alcohol does to a woman’s body
The time from when women take their first drink to the time they develop medical complications is shorter than it is for men, Martin said. For a variety of reasons, women can’t metabolize alcohol as fast as men, meaning they have more of the toxic substance in their systems for longer.
Women have lower amounts of the enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, needed to break their drinks down, so they are left with higher levels of a substance that is toxic to organs like the liver. Moreover, women have less body water to dilute the alcohol they’ve consumed — the end result is that alcohol in their systems becomes more concentrated, Karaye said.
Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, an associate professor in the division of gastroenterology and liver disease at NYU Langone Health, regularly sees women with complications from drinking who aren’t aware of how toxic alcohol is to their bodies.
They often don’t realize “they don’t need to drink as much as men to develop liver disease,” she said.
“The article didn’t surprise me,” said Ganjhu, who was not affiliated with the new study. “Women are overusing alcohol with more frequency now.”
”I’ve had to talk to a fair number of women about their alcohol use,” she added. “I had one patient who developed pancreatitis from drinking ask me when she could start drinking again. She said it wasn’t acceptable to not drink with clients. It’s mind-boggling.”
Katherine Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that alcohol has been sold to women as a part of a luxury lifestyle, having a good time and a way to reduce stress.
“If you look at who is binge drinking the most, it’s women at midlife,” she said. “We see the greatest escalations in women with the highest socioeconomic status — those with the highest incomes, the most education and the highest-status occupations.”