4 Factors Driving Alcohol-Related Deaths Among Women

Published on March 6, 2020
Mountainside Canaan Aerial Shot

Canaan, CT – A study released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) earlier this year found that alcohol-related deaths more than doubled over the past two decades, from 35,914 deaths in 1999 to 72,558 in 2017. Such deaths rose across nearly all racial, ethnic, and age groups, but increases were most dramatic among women –rising by 85 percent. Here are four major contributors to this problem:

  1. Shifting cultural messages. With many alcohol companies creating “female-friendly” drinks (raspberry rose and “Chick Beer,” among others), and ad campaigns such as “Jane Walker” and “Spike the Cookies” targeting female audiences, the notion of women drinking has become more accepted – and at times, encouraged – in society. The message conveyed is that women are equal to men, so they are able to enjoy a drink and have fun, too. “Mommy wine culture” similarly signals to mothers that they should use alcohol to alleviate stress and temporarily escape the pressures of motherhood when the stress becomes too difficult to bear. In fact, The Journal of Neuroscience Research discovered that women, versus men, are more likely to self-medicate with substances.
  2. Biological differences. Alcohol impacts female drinkers more rapidly because women tend to have lower body weight and their bodies carry less water, so alcohol is absorbed more quickly into their bloodstream. Because of this, women experience alcohol’s effects more intensely, and become addicted faster than their male counterparts. Aside from alcohol use disorders, female drinkers also face an increased likelihood of experiencing alcohol poisoning and other health consequences that tend to shorten lifespan, including liver diseases, heart and reproductive complications, and a heightened risk of breast cancer.
  3. More binge drinking. From 2008 to 2018, female binge drinking increased 47 percent while male binge drinking actually fell 1 percent, according to SAMSHA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. For women, binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks within a two-hour period. Consuming alcohol at this rate greatly lowers a person’s inhibitions, endangers their safety, and raises their risk of sustaining injuries and accidents. Because drinking can impair the senses and judgment, a person’s chances of experiencing sexual assault or reckless driving similarly increase. With binge drinking steadily becoming more common among women, it does not appear to be coincidence that female drinkers are dying at higher rates in recent years.
  4. Polysubstance use. The NIAAA study found that 18 percent of total alcohol-related deaths in 2017 could be attributed to an overdose, either from drinking alone or in combination with other substances. Alcohol can be especially lethal when consumed along with other depressants, such as opioids and benzodiazepines (benzos) like Xanax. Many people unknowingly take these together intending to speed up or intensify feelings of relaxation, raising their risk of overdose and addiction. Because each of these suppress breathing, when combined, the chance of respiratory failure is dramatically compounded. Mountainside treatment center’s own admissions data from 2011 to 2019 reflects a 100 percent increase in the number of female clients using alcohol along with opioids and benzos.

“While it’s extremely worrying and unfortunately not surprising that the number of women struggling with alcoholism has risen, the bright side is that we’ve noticed more women are reaching out for help and enrolling in treatment for alcohol use disorders,” says Lisa Westerson, Senior Clinical Supervisor at Mountainside.

Mountainside has seen a striking increase in the number of female clients who were admitted to treatment for alcoholism between 2013 and 2019:

• Female admissions with alcohol as a primary substance of choice increased 141 percent, from 110 in 2013 to 265 in 2019.

• In 2013, admissions for alcohol made up 54 percent of total admissions for women (36 percent for men) versus 2019, when alcohol was responsible for 75 percent of total admissions for women (58 percent for men).

To reverse the trend in alcohol-related deaths for women, women need to be aware of resources available to help, and to not be afraid to seek assistance. “Addiction darkened my spirit; in recovery, I had to learn how to build myself up and find healthy ways to manage setbacks I encountered,” says Senior Recovery Coach Tracy Maestrone. “Women should know that they are not alone in this fight, and that there are addiction treatment programs and services tailored to women to help them overcome the unique challenges they face.”