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Risky Gender Gap

Female college students exceed alcohol guidelines more frequently than male college students

May 17, 2013

Image: Dardespot/iStock

There is no such thing as gender equality when it comes to the risks associated with alcohol consumption, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which in 2009  issued guidelines that define low-risk drinking for both sexes.  Now a new study finds college-age women overimbibe more frequently than their male classmates, possibly putting their health at greater risk than men when they do.

“We found that female college-student drinkers exceeded national drinking guidelines for weekly drinking more frequently than their male counterparts,” said said Bettina B. Hoeppner, HMS assistant professor of psychology at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Addiction Medicine. “Weekly cut-offs are recommended to prevent long-term harmful effects due to alcohol, such as liver disease and breast cancer. By exceeding weekly limits more often than men, women are putting themselves at increased risk for experiencing such long-term effects."

Hoeppner is the corresponding author for the study, which will be published in the October 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The NIAAA's low-risk guidelines differ for men and women: no more than four drinks per day, and 14 drinks per week for men; no more than three drinks per day, and seven drinks per week for women. A new study of how well college students adhere to these limits has found that female college student drinkers exceed national drinking guidelines for weekly drinking more frequently than their male counterparts. 

“Recommended drinking limits are lower for women than for men because research to date has found that women experience alcohol-related problems at lower levels of alcohol consumption than men,” explained Hoeppner.

“It is always important to take gender into account when studying health or risk behaviors,” added Melissa A. Lewis, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington.

“Even if you hold weight constant, there are differences in terms of how alcohol affects men and women.  For example, men have more of an enzyme in the stomach — a gastric alcohol dehydrogenase — that lowers the amount of alcohol that makes it into the bloodstream. Also, women have less blood going through the bloodstream than a man at the same weight, so alcohol gets more concentrated in the bloodstream,” Lewis said.

“In addition,” said Lewis, “men’s weekly drinking declined over time, whereas women’s weekly drinking did not. This finding is concerning.  If women continue to exceed weekly drinking recommendations over time, it puts them at greater risk for health issues, such as liver or heart disease and certain forms of cancer.”

For the study, Hoeppner and her colleagues asked 992 college students (575 females and 417 males) to report their daily drinking habits on a biweekly basis, using web-based surveys throughout their first year of college.

“These findings contribute to our understanding of how populations adhere to national drinking guidelines,” said Hoeppner. “Specifically, it examines college student drinkers, where adherence to weekly drinking limits has not been examined before. Generally, ‘binge drinking’ receives more attention when examining college student drinking. However, for long-term health, it is also important to examine the establishment of drinking patterns that may lead to long-term harmful effects, not just short-term effects.”

“These findings highlight the need for prevention efforts to focus on both daily and weekly limits to reduce harm from short- and long-term negative consequences related to alcohol use,” said Lewis. “Current preventive interventions often do not focus on weekly drinking recommendations, which is important and a warranted area of future research.

 “Our results might motivate clinicians to address weekly drinking limits and the potential for long-term alcohol related harm with their patients,” Hoeppner said.

“The reasons that many college students exceed these weekly limits are unclear. It is possible that lack of awareness of the guidelines and possible consequences of exceeding them contributes to these high rates. If so, clinicians might reduce harm by educating their college-student patients about the guidelines and the harm they seek to prevent, especially their female patients. Similarly, researchers and clinicians designing prevention/intervention programs might find it useful to address weekly drinking limits in their programs, both to reduce incidence rates thereof, and to identify the reasons for exceeding these guidelines,” Hoeppner said.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 


Relevant Journal Articles

Sex Differences in College Student Adherence to NIAAA Drinking Guidelines. Hoeppner et al. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, online May 17, 2013.

Adapted from a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism news release.

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