Why Are So Many Women Dying From Drinking?

Photographed by Nicole Maroon.
This past week, a new study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism was published that revealed something alarming: There's been a staggering increase in the number of women dying from alcohol-related causes.
By analyzing U.S. death certificate data, the NIAAA researchers found that among women, the rate of deaths that involved alcohol rose 85% between 1999 and 2017. To compare, men have experienced a 35% increase in that time frame (though the total number of men affected is still higher).
This is scary, but perhaps not entirely unexpected. "Alcohol is a growing women’s health issue," said George F. Koob, PhD, Director of the NIAAA, in a press release. "The rapid increase in deaths involving alcohol among women is troubling and parallels the increases in alcohol consumption among women over the past few decades."
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That’s right: Other research has confirmed that the number of women turning to booze is steadily increasing. And we’re not talking about hitting up happy hour once a week. In a previous study from 2017, researchers from the NIAAA compared women’s drinking habits in 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. They found that there was a 58% increase in high-risk drinking, defined as taking more than three drinks a day or seven a week.
In fact, the study indicated that the only group of women who are drinking less than they were 20 years ago are teens. Good for the Gen Z-ers, but what's going on with the rest of us?
In comparison, while the rate of alcohol-related deaths among men has increased, their drinking has stayed relatively steady. They still drink more than women, but if the current trends continue, women could soon be matching them — or even surpassing them. 
"College-aged young adult females are more likely to drink or more likely to report getting drunk than males," says Aaron White, PhD, the senior scientific advisor to the NIAAA director, who was involved in the recent study. "We're worried about what's happening with young females and why their numbers aren't dropping like men's."
Neither of the NIAAA studies looked into why women are drinking more. But Susan Stewart, PhD, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, might have a clue. She's currently analyzing data from The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 in the hopes of learning more about what is driving women's alcohol use. 
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Stewart points out that smoking’s increase in popularity among women in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, is now being mimicked by alcohol’s. "The idea [with cigarettes] was that you have the right to do this, just like a man," she explains to Refinery29. 
But in the 21st century, and when it comes to alcohol, the factors driving women to hit the bars and liquor stores are different.
"My big finding mainly is that this is an outlet for stress. A lot of women are talking about having 'me time'," Stewart says of her research. "They're working, they're taking care of children, they're exhausted, and they need some kind of outlet. Having a few glasses of wine kind of does the trick for them."
Having a career may encourage women to drink more in another way, too. Managing a job can be stressful, sure, but the environment may also give women more opportunities to drink: at client dinners, networking happy hours, celebratory parties, and other functions, says Stewart. 
Another factor is that brands have noticed that more women are interested in relaxing over a glass of wine and are targeting them more aggressively as potential customers, according to a report published by the Public Health Institute and Institute of Alcohol Studies. The findings list specific strategies booze companies have used, such as developing new products meant to appeal to women.
Media portrayals of heavy drinking as normal (think: TikToks showing people joking about downing full bottles of wine and the boozy parties in the Real Housewives) may also play a part. "Not everyone celebrates their 21st birthday taking 21 shots," despite what Instagram may indicate, says  R. Lorraine Collins, PhD, a psychologist and professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in substance abuse. "You don't want those kinds of messages to become the norm."
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What makes this all even more troubling is that women are uniquely vulnerable to certain health consequences of alcohol, Powell says. They have less water in their bodies than men, so there’s less to dilute any booze that enters the bloodstream. That means if you drink the same amount as a man who shares your weight, your blood alcohol content would be higher than his.
Of course, not all women who partake are drinking problematically, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to hit up happy hour with friends or enjoy a glass or two of red with a meal. 
But the mental and physical consequences of drinking can add up over time. Going back to the NIAAA’s analysis of death certificate data, for someone’s cause of death to mention alcohol, it’s usually a sign that there was a serious problem — the person may have died in an accident while intoxicated, or suffered from a condition associated with severe, chronic alcohol abuse like cirrhosis, says Collins. 
So the next time you reach for a bottle of wine, it may be worth asking yourself why you’re pouring yourself a glass. If you're looking for a way to relax, consider booze-free strategies, such as going for a run, meditating, or browsing Netflix over a glass of water or a green juice instead.
If you ever try to cut back and find it’s a struggle, or think you may have a problem moderating your alcohol use, Collins suggests finding a professional who can help you to limit your intake or abstain entirely, if that’s what feels right. We're all for enjoying ourselves — as long as it doesn't come at the expense of our safety.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.
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