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Female Drinking and Brain Damage

Women Face Greater Memory Loss Than Men

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Updated November 22, 2003

Medical research continues to reveal greater health risks for women who drink compared to men. The latest studies show that females, even young women, face more brain damage than men who drink the same amount for the same period of time.

Previous studies have found that women who drink face a greater risk of developing diseases related to alcohol abuse -- such as liver disease, heart disease, cancer and particularly breast cancer -- than men who drink similar amounts or even more.

Now two recent studies indicate that women tend to develop brain "shrinkage" and damage to their memory capabilities much faster than their male counterparts who drink.

Dr. Daniel W. Hommer and his colleagues at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse reported in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry that women's brains are more vulnerable to the damage caused by alcoholism. The study is the first to show distinct gender differences in the brain "shrinkage" that is common to alcoholics.

Killing Brain Cells

The researchers found that while male alcoholics, sober for three weeks, showed signs of brain "shrinkage" compared with healthy men, the difference between alcoholic and healthy women was much greater. The shrinkage probably reflects the killing off of brain cells, according to Dr. Hommer.

Brain shrinkage increases with age in everyone, Hommer said. "The early decreases seen in alcoholics may make them more vulnerable to cognitive decline and dementia as they grow older," he told Reuters Health. "Alcoholism is linked to dementia, this study suggests that alcoholic women may be particularly at risk."

He said the same amount of alcohol sends women's blood alcohol levels higher than it does men's, which could explain the different effects on the brain and brain shrinkage.

In the second study published this month by Susan F. Tapert in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, focused on the effects of alcohol consumption on shrinkage of a particular part of the brain - the hippocampus - which is critical for memory.

Although both genders seem to be affected by alcohol's toxic neurological effects, women often have shorter histories of heavy drinking before experiencing the same effects, Tapert wrote.

Affecting Everyday Life

"Previous studies have shown that alcoholic women perform just as poorly as alcoholic men on thinking and memory tests," said Tapert, "even though the women hadn't been drinking as long as the men had."

The study indicates that brain damage to females occurs much sooner than with men and shows up even in teen-age drinkers. "We have ourselves done several studies comparing thinking and memory abilities in teens with and without drinking problems," Tapert said, "and found that remembering information, solving spatial problems like working with maps or puzzles, and doing mental arithmetic were less accurate in heavy-drinking youth."

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to 'visualize' brain activity in young women.

"The main finding," said Tapert, "was that the alcohol-dependent women showed less activation in brain areas that are needed for spatial tasks like puzzles, maps and mechanics, and for working with information that is held mentally, like doing math inside your head or making sense of a lecture or set of complex instructions. The brain parts that showed the differences are in areas that we need for finding our way around, and working with all the information we are bombarded with in everyday life."

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