Women are at Greater Risk of Serious Health Effects
By Rae Sanders
It’s a bit of an inside joke in Wisconsin that we love to drink, and drink hard.
But the implications of the distinction aren’t so funny, especially for women, who are at a higher risk of experiencing serious health effects from binge and heavy drinking.
In 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Health reported that Wisconsin ranked third in the nation for binge drinking—for women that means drinking four or more drinks on one occasion. And, 20 percent of Wisconsin women ages 18-44 were found to be binge drinking, compared to 16 percent nationwide.
And that kind of heavy drinking, over time, can increase a woman’s likelihood of developing liver disease, brain and heart issues and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Women generally are smaller in size and height and weight, so the same volume of ethanol, which is what alcohol is, theoretically goes further,” says Noelle LoConte, a hematology and oncology doctor and associate professor at UW Carbone Cancer Center. “Alcohol is converted by an enzyme in our bodies, a known carcinogen called acetaldehyde. I have not read anything that says that women have different levels of those enzymes per se, but it is a known thing [that women are more susceptible],” LoConte says.
LoConte cites a report released this November in the Journal of Clinical Oncology on a compilation of studies that found that, with heavy drinking, people are around 500 percent more likely to develop head, neck and throat cancer, 265 percent more likely to develop larynx cancer, 207 percent more likely to develop liver cancer, 61 percent more likely to develop breast cancer and 44 percent more likely to develop colon cancer.
Drinking to excess also increases a woman’s likelihood of being sexually assaulted and, in cases of drinking and driving, can cause legal troubles and worse.
The reasons women binge drink can vary, says Krystle Haviland, assistant director of Connections Counseling. Haviland says women sometimes find ways to normalize binging by seeking out people to do it with.
Caroline Miller, director of Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, says up to 89 percent of women who’ve experienced personal trauma also are more vulnerable to substance abuse.
Wisconsin’s alcohol saturated environment certainly plays a role in the problem, says Julia Sherman, senior outreach specialist for the Alcohol Policy Project at the UW Law School. Sherman says extra efforts are needed to confront alcohol abuse in Wisconsin, but there has been some progress.
“A decade ago we had the highest rate of underage drinking in the nation. We don’t anymore. We’re at the national average… The other thing it proved is [that] Wisconsin can change,” Sherman says.
Getting treatment for alcohol-related problems can be difficult due to its social stigma. But, long-term treatment seems to be a helpful measure toward recovery says Connections Counseling director Shelly Dutch.
“We just don’t bring them in and educate them and help them on the path to recovery, we help connect them with other women who have been through it and are really walking the walk,” Dutch says.
For more information about getting help for binge drinking or other substance abuse problems, click here.