Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Book Review (Part Two): "Women Under the Influence"

The Rise of the Binge Grrls

“Women get drunk faster, become addicted more quickly, and develop alcohol-related diseases—such as hypertension and liver, brain and heart damage—more rapidly than men.” --The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University

Today, about one out of every four American girls has had one or more alcoholic drinks by the age of 13, according to “Women Under the Influence,” a book by Columbia’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. In the 1960s, only 7 percent of girls reported having consumed alcohol by that age.

80 per cent of college women living in sororities engage in regular bouts of binge drinking, compared to 35 per cent of non-sorority college women. While most women are moderate drinkers, the Center estimates that at least six million girls and women meet the DSM-IV criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence.

When it comes to alcohol, the study turned a few common assumptions upside down. For example, the more education a woman has had, the more likely she is to be a drinker. Surveys indicate that 36 per cent of women with less than a high school education drink alcohol, compared to 60 percent of women who attended college. White adult women are more likely to be drinkers than African-American, Hispanic, or Asian-American women. And while men traditionally drink more than women, women are fast closing that gender gap. Among high school seniors, the percentage gap between heavy-drinking boys and heavy-drinking girls was 23 percent in 1975. By 2003, the difference was only 12 percent, and among very young teenagers, girls have closed the gender gap completely. In addition, older women have higher rates of late-onset (over age 60) alcohol abuse than men.

Teenage girls whose mothers drank regularly during pregnancy are six times more likely to report alcohol use than girls whose mothers did not drink. Whatever the cause, or most likely causes, no such maternal relationship has been demonstrated for teenage boys of drinking mothers. And—bearing in mind that such estimates are fraught with peril—the Center concludes that genetic factors account for as much as 66 percent of the risk for alcohol dependence in women. As evidence, women who are alcoholics are somewhat more likely that male alcoholics to come from a family with a history of alcohol abuse.

Women metabolize alcohol differently than men do. With less water and more fatty tissue in their bodies, blood alcohol levels are higher for women than for men, given the same number of drinks. After two beers, women are more likely than men to exceed legal levels of alcohol in the bloodstream. Women get drunk faster and have heavier hangovers, and the reason may stem from differences in ADH enzyme activity in breaking down alcohol into its byproducts. (More research is needed.) Female alcoholics also develop liver diseases like cirrhosis more frequently than alcohol-abusing men, and at lower levels of alcohol intake.

From the sociocultural point of view, women are targeted heavily in alcohol advertising, primarily through promotion of the idea that alcohol will relax sexual inhibitions and improve communication with men. Alcohol advertising has increasingly zeroed in on selling beer to women—“beer’s lost drinkers,” as one brewery spokesman put it. Only about 20 per cent of women currently drink beer regularly. Ironically, the alcohol industry’s official code of ethics forbade the use of women in alcohol ads until 1958. And as recently as 2003, the Code of Responsible Practices of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States specifically prohibited any ads or marketing materials that “degrade the image, form or status of women…”

All of the foregoing pales in comparison to the potential for damage among pregnant women who drink. The fact that alcohol is dangerous to fetal development is not a recent discovery. Aristotle pointed out that “Foolish drunken or harebrain women for the most part bring forth children like unto themselves.” While warning signs on alcohol containers and tavern doors have become a common sight, the study group estimates that about 10 percent of pregnant women still drink. (That number is quite likely higher, given the reluctance of patients to accurately report their alcohol intake). “Drinking during pregnancy,” according to the Center, “is the single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation” in America today. Indeed, the number of birth defects caused by alcohol in one year exceeds the total number of recorded thalidomide births.

Tragically, “As many as 60 percent of pregnant women who drink do not discover their condition until after the first trimester.” In addition to the well-known Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), there is also a range of other neurobehavioral deficits to the fetus associated with drinking during early pregnancy. Pregnant women who drink heavily suffer three times the normal risk of miscarriages and stillbirths. In fact, to this day, no safe level of alcohol intake during pregnancy has been established. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to advise women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant to abstain for alcohol completely.

Part Two of Three

Women Under the Influence--purchase info

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