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Women’s drinking habits (and related health problems) are now similar to men’s, study finds

Among people born between 1991 and 2000, men were only 1.1 times as likely as women to drink any alcohol, 1.2 times as likely to drink to problematic levels, and 1.3 times as likely to have alcohol-related health problems.

Women are, unfortunately, catching up with men in regards to their consumption of alcohol and its negative impact on their health, according to a new global meta-analysis published Monday in the journal BMJ Open. 

The study, which looked at data beginning with the generation that came of age during World War I, also found the narrowing of this particular gender gap has accelerated greatly in recent decades.

“Alcohol use and alcohol use disorders have historically been viewed as a male phenomenon,” write the study’s authors. “The present study calls this assumption into question and suggests that young women in particularly should be the target of concerted efforts to reduce the impact of substance use and related harms.”

Study details

For the study, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia and Columbia University in the United States pooled and analyzed data from 68 studies from around the world that had compared men’s and women’s drinking patterns across at least two separate periods of time. (A third of the studies spanned 20 years or more.)

The data was collected between 1948 and 2014, and involved more than 4 million people born between 1891 and 2000. Most of the studies were conducted in North America or Europe, but Asia, Oceania and other regions were also represented.

Using birth dates, the authors of the new meta-analysis organized all the studies’ participants into five-year cohorts, except for two 10-year cohorts (1891-1910 and 1991-2000). They then looked at each cohort in terms of alcohol consumption (quantity and frequency), problematic uses of alcohol (such as binge drinking or heavy drinking), and alcohol-related health problems (such as cirrhosis). 

The analysis revealed a dramatic decrease in the male-to-female ratio of alcohol use across the years. Among people born between 1891 and 1920, men were 2.2 times as likely as women to drink alcohol, 3.0 times as likely to drink to problematic levels, and 3.6 times as likely to develop alcohol-related health problems.

Among people born between 1991 and 2000, men were only 1.1 times as likely as women to drink any alcohol, 1.2 times as likely to drink to problematic levels, and 1.3 times as likely to have alcohol-related health problems.

The researchers determined (after doing some fancy math calculations that accounted for potential bias) that the alcohol gender gap fell by 3.2 percent every five years.

The steepest drop, however, occurred among people born from 1966 onwards.

“That the birth cohort effect on sex ratios has become more pronounced in these recent birth cohorts points to the value of continuing to focus research on adolescent and young adult sex-specific trends in substance use,” the study states.

Unanswered questions

The researchers stress that their findings represent only the “relative prevalence of alcohol use or related harms in males versus females.” The analysis does not reveal whether the convergence of men and women’s drinking habits is being driven by women drinking more — or men drinking less.

Most of the studies used in the meta-analysis suggest, however, that a greater use of alcohol among women is behind the trend.

The study also doesn’t tell us why the male-female gap in alcohol use is closing. The study’s authors do, however, discuss several possible explanations. Leading the list is the shedding of the traditional gender role of women over the past 100 years. Women today are (obviously) participating in much greater numbers in the workforce and are better educated than in past generations. They are also getting married at later ages. All of these factors have made drinking more socially acceptable for women.

And that means more women are at risk of abusing alcohol and incurring alcohol-related health problems, just like their male counterparts. For example, about 12 percent of women in the U.S. binge drink at least three times a month, downing an average of five drinks per binge, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And the rate of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is now higher for American women than for American men.

FMI: You can read the meta-analysis in full on the BMJ Open website. You’ll find information about excessive alcohol use and health risks to women on the CDC’s website.

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