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While men worldwide drink more alcohol than women, US research shows that women are catching up fast. However there is no clear explanation why this is happening.

A 10-year US research study has revealed that the drinking patterns of men and women have narrowed, as have alcohol-related “harms.” It confirms a number of other recent reports that suggest similar changing patterns of alcohol use by men and women in the USA.

Undertaken by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and CSR, Incorporated, the study was led by Dr Aaron White, a senior scientific advisor at the NIAAA. Based on existing data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It started with the premise that there is a seemingly universal gender gap when it comes to the consumption of alcohol, with men throughout history consuming more than women and experiencing more alcohol-related problems, irrespective of culture.

The study looked at drinking patterns, as well as statistics relating to driving under the influence of alcohol, the prevalence of binge drinking, and DSM-IV alcohol abuse. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) differentiates between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence and lists specific criteria for each. Although not relevant to the findings of this particular research study, the fifth edition of this publication (DSM-5) released in 2013 integrates alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, calling it alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Results of the NIAAA Study

The study published online late last year (2015) by the US National Library of Medicine’s found that between 2002 and 2012, percentages for women increased from 44.9 to 48.3 percent and decreased for men by 57.4 to 56.1 percent. The average number of so-called “drinking days” in a month also increased for women (from 6.8 to 7.3 days) and decreased for men, from 9.9 to 9.5 days.

The only divergence in drinking habits was a tendency for adult men in the 18 to 25 age group to combine marijuana with alcohol. The statistics indicated that this figure had increased from 15 to 19 percent, while it had remained steady amongst women in this age group (10 percent.)

In terms of binge drinking, researchers found notable differences between the drinking patterns of college men in the 18- to 25-year-old age group and those of the same age not attending college. While there was no change for male college students, binge drinking amongst those not in college decreased significantly. On the contrary, there was a significant increase in binge drinking amongst women of this age group who weren’t attending college. This indicated that the gender gap in binge drinking for men and women who weren’t studying had narrowed substantially. 

Even though the study found that the gender gap of alcohol-related harms had narrowed, men are still more likely to:

  • be arrested for DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) than women,
  • die in traffic accidents where alcohol was a factor, and
  • be admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning.

But they found that women were more susceptible to negative outcomes, including liver inflammation, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular disease and cancer relating to the effects of alcohol. 

Conclusions of the NIAAA Study

Ultimately, the study found that both consumption of alcohol and related outcomes had narrowed between men and women. However, these converging patterns of alcohol use (and abuse) were not clear, and could not be easily explained by recent trends in marital, employment or pregnancy status. For this reason the researchers recommended that more research be done to identify environmental and psychosocial contributors to these changes so that implications for both prevention and treatment can be assessed.

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