Women and men have gender-specific differences in their rate of susceptibility to substance abuse, as well as differences in the types of substances that function as abuse targets. Other known influences on substance abuse risks include genetic inheritance and environmental influences encountered by each individual. In a study presented Aug. 18, 2014, to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, researchers from Indiana University used information from a federally funded project called the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism to further explore gender’s impact on the mixture of substance abuse risks for any given person.
Gender and Substance Abuse
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration uses information from a yearly undertaking called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to track gender-related differences in substance abuse in the U.S. The latest available figures from this survey, reported in April 2014, cover the year 2011. In that year, boys and men accounted for two-thirds (66.9 percent) of all Americans who sought treatment for substance abuse; girls and women accounted for 33.1 percent of treatment-seekers. For both genders, the single age group most likely to enter substance abuse treatment was adults between the ages of 25 and 34. Women in this age range were somewhat more likely to enter treatment than men.
Alcohol was the most commonly abused substance among treatment-seeking females and males in 2011. However, men and boys were substantially more likely to abuse alcohol than women and girls. Women and girls seeking treatment abused three other types of substances – marijuana, opioid pain relievers and heroin – to a roughly equal extent. They also had smaller but significant chances of abusing methamphetamine, amphetamines, cocaine or other substances. In descending order of frequency, the other most commonly abused substances among men and boys seeking treatment were marijuana, heroin, opioid pain relievers, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamines and “other” drugs.
Genetic and Environmental Risks
Roughly 50 percent of any given individual’s odds of developing problems with alcohol, nicotine or drug addiction are genetic, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. This is remarkable considering the fact that all humans share over 99 percent of their DNA in common. Generally speaking, no isolated genes account for your risks for developing substance problems; instead, numerous genes typically interact in complex ways to produce your overall risk profile. In addition, your environment and experiences in childhood and adolescence can have a profound influence on your odds of abusing drugs or alcohol or developing a drug or alcohol addiction. Again, your genetics, environment and experiences interact in complex ways to create your larger risk profile.
Influence of Gender
In the study presented to the American Sociological Association, the Indiana University researchers analyzed the data from 4,307 men and women who took part in the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism. Specifically, they looked at the information on the impact of variations in a single gene, known as GABRA2, which can increase substance abuse risks by making affected individuals unusually susceptibility to daily environmental stress. Some of the men and women enrolled in the study had symptoms that qualified them for a diagnosis of substance dependence or addiction, while others did not.
The researchers concluded that men with a genetic susceptibility to daily environmental stress frequently avoid a significant slide into substance abuse by improving their ties to friends and family and subsequently increasing the strength of their support networks. However, they also concluded that, for women with a genetic susceptibility to daily environmental stress, similar increases in support network strength often don’t produce the same substance abuse-related protective benefits.
The study’s authors believe that environment, genetics and gender all play a role in making women with relatively strong support networks more susceptible to substance abuse. A key factor is apparently the social expectations placed on women as mothers and sustainers of community ties and relationships. Effectively, in combination with genes that increase substance abuse risks, the heightened stress produced by these social expectations may offset any benefits of a support network and leave the odds for substance-related problems largely undiminished. The authors believe this point underscores the fact that social environments favorable to men may not be favorable to women. However, they also believe that improved social service resources may help at least some susceptible women keep their substance abuse risks in check.