Increased participation among women largely accounts for a recent spike in binge drinking in the U.S., according to new findings reported by a team of American researchers.
In the U.S., rates of adult involvement in two dangerous drinking practices—heavy drinking and binge drinking—have risen substantially in recent years. In a study published in April 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from the University of Washington conducted a county-by-county analysis of heavy drinking and binge drinking across the nation. These researchers concluded that increased alcohol binging among women is a primary underlying cause in the overall increase in binge drinking. They also concluded that the rates of heavy drinking and binge drinking vary markedly depending on the specific county under consideration.
Binge Drinking and Heavy Drinking
A binge is defined as the consumption of enough alcohol to meet the legal standard for drunkenness or intoxication in a span of time lasting for no longer than two hours. People who binge drink even once expose themselves to an array of serious problems, including injury-causing or property-destroying accidents, injuries sustained during fights or physical assaults, alcohol poisoning and sexual assault. In addition, significant numbers of alcohol bingers will die while in an intoxicated state. Any person who frequently binge drinks has sharply increased risks for diagnosable alcohol problems.
Heavy drinking is defined by the daily and/or weekly consumption of enough alcohol to surpass commonly accepted standards for moderate drinking. The transition from moderate drinking to heavy drinking seriously increases the chances that an alcohol consumer will develop a diagnosable case of non-addicted alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism (alcohol dependence). Broadly speaking, your chances of developing alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism increase with every instance of heavy drinking that occurs each month. Roughly half of all people who drink heavily at least twice a week (i.e., eight or more times per month) will ultimately have diagnosable alcohol problems.
Women and Alcohol
Women don’t process alcohol as efficiently as men, and they therefore have an increased baseline level of exposure to harm for any given level of alcohol intake. Current public health guidelines reflect this fact by calling for a lower threshold for binge drinking and heavy drinking in women than in men. Specific problems found in women who consume excessive amounts of alcohol include higher rates for alcoholic liver disease (e.g., alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis) than those found in men who drink excessively, higher risks than men for alcohol-related heart damage (even when actual intake is lower), higher chances than men of developing alcohol-related brain damage and increased risks for breast cancer, as well as several other forms of cancer with a known or suspected link to habitual, high alcohol consumption. Women who binge on alcohol have a significantly increased level of exposure to sexual assault, as well as increased chances of participating in risky, consensual sexual practices.
Women’s Binge-Drinking Rates
In the study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the University of Washington researchers used county-by-county nationwide data to track changes in America’s binge-drinking rates in the years 2002 to 2012. The researchers also used county-by-county nationwide data to track changes in America’s heavy-drinking rates in the years 2005 to 2012. Between 2002 and 2012, the nation’s overall rate of binge drinking increased by roughly 8.9 percent. Between 2005 and 2012, the nation’s overall rate of heavy drinking increased by a much more substantial 17.2 percent. All told, 18.3 percent of American adults qualified as binge drinkers in 2012. In that year, 8.2 percent qualified as heavy drinkers. The researchers concluded that men increased their participation in binge drinking by 4.9 percent during the period under consideration. During that same timeframe, women increased their participation in the practice by a much steeper 17.5 percent. This finding indicates that women are the major driving force behind the overall observed increase in alcohol binging.
When they compared binging and heavy drinking in different counties, the researchers uncovered a wide range of variance. The highest 2012 countywide rate for alcohol binging (36 percent) occurred in Menominee County, Wisconsin, while the lowest rate (5.9 percent) occurred in Madison County, Idaho. The highest 2012 countywide rate for heavy drinking (22.4 percent) occurred in Esmeralda County, Nevada, while the lowest rate (2.4 percent) occurred in Hancock County, Tennessee. On a regional level, the highest rates of alcohol intake generally occurred in New England, the Midwest and the West. However, as a rule, there were greater variations within the counties of any single state than among larger geographic regions.