It has only been in recent decades that medical research has arrived at the conclusion that women are not just smaller versions of men. Diseases manifest differently in men than in women. For example, the chest-clutching “Hollywood heart attack” is likelier to happen to a man than a woman. Women’s heart attack symptoms are subtler and may seem unrelated to the heart, yet they are just as deadly as men’s symptoms.

Likewise, alcohol addiction affects women in different ways than it does in men, and yes, it is every bit as dangerous and deadly in women as it is in men. Part of this is because women are statistically smaller than men, but that is only the beginning. Many other factors affect how men and women metabolize alcohol and react to long-term alcohol addiction.

Chronic Alcohol Use Affects Even Young Women

The effects of alcoholism can become apparent in women who are only in their 30s who began drinking five to ten years prior. NIH researcher Daniel Hommer has found that women in their 30s with alcohol addiction may demonstrate difficulty completing simple problem-solving tasks, experience problems with impulse control, and have more difficulty meeting their commitments in the home and in their professional lives.

It is the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking – the cerebral cortex – that is more profoundly affected in women with alcohol addiction than in men. Whether the addiction progresses through chronic drinking or binge drinking, the effects on the brain are significant.

Brain Tissue Is Demonstrably Affected

Hommer’s study included 36 women with alcohol dependency who were at the time participating in inpatient treatment. Men’s and women’s brains were compared using MRI scans after at least three weeks of abstinence from alcohol.

The results were striking. On average, the MRI scans of women with alcohol addiction showed loss of up to 11 percent in brain matter and size compared to both men and non-alcohol-dependent women. These results were found in both women who were binge drinkers and in chronic drinkers who drank enough to experience symptoms like blackouts and alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol addiction

Alcohol damage to women’s brains shows up more readily on MRI scans than it does in men.

Why Women Are More Affected by Alcohol Use

Women are generally smaller than men and are believed to be more sensitive to alcohol’s effects than men because they have a lower ratio of body water to fat than men do. Moreover, women have lower levels of a metabolizing enzyme the body uses to break down alcohol. Hence, women become inebriated with less alcohol than it takes for men to become impaired. There is some evidence that women’s monthly hormonal fluctuations affect how alcohol is metabolized, and in some cases, hormonal shifts can result in swift increases in blood alcohol content compared with the rise of BAC in men.

Health Consequences Disproportionately Borne by Women

The disease of alcohol addiction puts women at higher risk for other health conditions than it does men. For example, women with alcohol dependency are more likely than men to develop liver disease and are likelier to die from cirrhosis of the liver than are men. As for general health, women who drink heavily are at higher risk of other diseases, including:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Hip fractures
  • Early menopause
  • Infertility and miscarriage
  • Heart disease and high blood pressure
  • Breast cancer

Access to Treatment Is Key 

The differences in how alcohol addiction affects men and women highlight how “one size fits all” addiction treatment falls short. To be successful, alcohol addiction treatment must be personalized to the patient. Just as one person’s recovery from a heart attack or cancer must be customized for the best outcome, addiction treatment must be personalized to maximize the chances of long-term recovery. If you are entangled in the disease of alcohol addiction, we encourage you to contact us at any time. We stand ready to help you break free from addiction now.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.