Study after study has shown that alcohol affects women differently than men, but a new German paper finds that alcohol is particularly devastating for women who struggle with addiction.
Alcohol dependence, it concludes, is twice as deadly for women as it is for men.
According to the study, started in 1996 and published online Tuesday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the death rate for alcohol-dependent women was more than four times that of a sample of non-addicted 18- to 64-year-olds. The death rate among alcohol-dependent men was about twice that of the general population over the 14-year study period.
On average, the alcohol-addicted men and women were about 20 years younger than members of the general population at the time of their death, explained study author Ulrich John, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Social Medicine at University Medicine Greifswald, Germany.
He and his colleagues relied on a sample of more than 4,000 respondents, identifying 119 men and 30 women who met the criteria for alcoholism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM), which psychiatrists use to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. For alcoholism, signs include drinking more than intended and having an ongoing desire to cut back on drinking but being unable to do so.
When the researchers followed-up with the study participants after 14 years, they found that 23 percent of the alcohol-dependent women had died, compared to just 18 percent of the men.
"Females are much more vulnerable to [many] toxins, such as alcohol," John told The Huffington Post.
Gender-based differences in vulnerability to alcohol are reflected in government recommendations about how much men and women should drink.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines classify moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Women who have three drinks on any day or more than seven per week are considered "heavy" or "high-risk" drinkers; for men, it's four drinks on any day or more than 14 per week.
Susan Foster, CASAColumbia's vice president and director of policy research and analysis, said the new findings were in line with an existing body of research that shows the impact of alcohol on women "is particularly harsh."
"When using the same amount, or less, women experience more health problems, more dependence and more hospitalizations than men," Foster said, explaining that women's bodies contain less water and more body fat than their male counterparts. Water dilutes substances, such as alcohol, while fat helps retain it in the body. Thus, women end up with higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood stream.
"On average, one drink for women has the impact of two drinks per men," Foster said. Alcohol consumption has been tied to increased risk for breast cancer, while alcohol-dependent women have a greater risk of developing alcohol-related heart disease, liver disease and alcohol-induced brain damage than men.
Foster also cautioned that the new study has limitations. For example, it found that detoxification and in-patient treatment for alcoholism did not have an impact on death rates for men and women. But many of the programs people check into are not evidence-based, she said, and the new study did not control for that. In addition, detoxification alone is not a form of treatment; rather it is a precursor to treatment.
Nonetheless, she told The Huffington Post that the new findings highlight an important bottom-line.
"Women need to understand that their risk is different than men's when it comes to addictive substances," she said.