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Younger Women More Prone to Alcohol Dependence

Alcoholism Gender Gap Closing


Updated September 28, 2012

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A large cross-sectional study of women born after World War II found that they were more likely to be alcohol dependent sometime during their lifetime compared with those who were born prior to 1943. No such increase was found for men born during the same periods.

The research, conducted at the University of Washington, concluded that more-recently born women have developed more alcohol dependence in a shorter period of time than their elders, reflecting a strong secular trend from one age group to the other.

Led by Richard A. Grucza, the researchers examined the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES), conducted in 1991 and 1992 and the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), conducted in 2001 and 2002. They compared lifetime prevalence rates from the same age groups and demographics, while controlling for age-related factors.

Higher Levels of Alcohol Dependence

Women born between 1954 to 1963 were at 1.2-fold higher odds for lifetime drinking and those who drank were at 1.5-fold higher odds for lifetime alcohol dependence, compared with compared with those born between 1944 to 1953.

The 1944 to 1953 group was also at elevated odds for lifetime drinking compared with the 1934 to 1943 group. These results were mostly due to changes among white and Hispanic women. There were little or no increases seen for African-American women, researchers said.

"We found that for women born after World War II, there are lower levels of abstaining from alcohol, and higher levels of alcohol dependence, even when looking only at women who drank," said Grucza in a news release. "However, we didn't see any significant tendency for more recently born men to have lower levels of abstention, or higher levels of alcohol dependence."

Grucza said these results shed more light on a "closing gender-gap in alcoholism," due to higher levels of problems among women, while men have been more or less steady in their levels of alcohol dependence.

Why Younger Women Drink More

The researchers speculate that the following cultural changes contributed to the increase in prevalence of alcohol dependence for women after World War II:

  • It became more socially acceptable for women to drink.
  • More women entered the workforce.
  • More women went to college.
  • Women were less hampered by gender stereotypes.
  • Women had more purchasing power.

"Clearly there were many changes in the cultural environment for women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s compared to women born earlier," Grucza said. "They were freer to engage in a range of behaviors that were culturally or practically off-limits, and these behaviors probably would have included excessive drinking and alcohol problems."

A Heightened Vulnerability

Another explanation of the increase of alcohol dependence in women is the fact that women have a well-documented heightened vulnerability to the effects of alcohol, compared with men, achieving greater blood alcohol levels with smaller doses, the authors said.

The researchers suggest specially designed prevention programs that target female drinkers could help lower drinking rates.


Richard A. Grucza, Kathleen K. Bucholz, John P. Rice, Laura J. Bierut "Secular Trends in the Lifetime Prevalence of Alcohol Dependence in the United States: A Re-evaluation" Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. May 2008.

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