Recent research adds alcohol to the list of gender disparities by highlighting the magnified concerns for women and their relationship with alcohol. At the most basic level, women do not process alcohol the same way men do. Women have less water pound for pound to dilute alcohol in their bodies, and on average, women are smaller than men. Thus, even in small amounts, alcohol affects women’s bodies differently than men’s, and heavy drinking (four or more drinks) is inherently riskier for women.

Because of the increased risk for certain diseases and side effects from heavy drinking, including increased risk for heart disease and stroke, unprotected sex and pregnancy, and alcohol dependency, it is important for a woman to remain aware of her relationship with alcohol throughout her lifetime. There is no single identifiable factor that determines if a woman will have problems with alcohol or at what age she may be most at risk for suffering the negative side effects of heavy drinking or acquiring alcohol dependency. By remaining cognizant of the risks associated with certain phases of life, women can make healthier choices.

Although drinking alcohol is illegal under the age of 21, the reality is that a significant number of women have their first drink in adolescence. Consuming alcohol may be appealing to young women because they assume it offers a good time, helps them relax, or relieves tension, especially in social situations. In addition, social pressure often exists on high school or college campuses to drink underage and frequently to excess.

When a young woman drinks, she increases her risk for unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault. Parents who foster open and supportive relationships with their teenage daughters reduce the risk of underage drinking. Research also shows a positive correlation between parents talking openly with their children about the risks of drinking and a reduced likelihood that their children will drink excessively.

Middle-aged women tend to drink more than older women. Certain factors may increase the likelihood of heavy drinking including childhood or sexual abuse, depression, or trouble in close relationships. Stress is a commonly blamed culprit for heavy drinking in both men and women. This can create a vicious circle in which the initial stress that triggered a desire to drink is magnified by the added stress created by over-drinking. Heavy drinking can put an additional strain on and negatively impact work and family relationships.

While women tend to drink less as they grow older, the risks associated with heavy drinking increase significantly after menopause. As women age, the amount of water in the body is reduced, decreasing the amount of alcohol needed to feel the effects and increasing the risk for heart disease and brain damage. Thankfully, elderly people tend to respond just as well as younger people to alcohol treatments. However, alcohol issues may be overlooked in older women because the symptoms, such as disorientation, may be seen as only age-related, or treating other illnesses, such as breast cancer, may be given higher priority. This can cause older women to miss out on proper treatment for alcohol-related issues.

By promoting open discussion and making adequate resources available, women can reduce the risk of negative side effects from drinking and maintain a healthier recreational relationship with alcohol as they see fit. If you are unhappy with the role alcohol is playing in your life or have noticed it affecting your relationships and responsibilities to work and your family, do not hesitate to seek help. Talk to your healthcare provider to receive a proper assessment of your relationship with alcohol and potential high-risk behavior. Psychotherapy is a helpful venue to explore your relationship with alcohol and discover new ways to cope with stress and low self-esteem. Couple or family therapy is conducive to restoring and enhancing relationships damaged by alcoholic behavior.

Please contact Symmetry Counseling if you are interested in setting up a therapy appointment or would like a list of resources related to alcohol issues.