(NPR) Victoria Cooper thought her drinking habits in college were just like everyone else’s. Shots at parties. Beers while bowling. Sure, she got more refills than some and missed classes while nursing hangovers, but she couldn’t have a problem, she thought.
“Because of what my picture of alcoholism was — old men who brown-bagged it in a parking lot — I thought I was fine,” says Cooper, now sober and living in Chapel Hill, N.C.
For nearly a century, women have been closing the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge-drinking and alcohol use disorder. What was previously a 3-1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women is closer to 1-to-1 globally, a 2016 analysis of several dozen studies suggested.
And the latest U.S. data from 2019 shows that women in their teens and early 20s reported drinking and getting drunk at higher rates than their male peers — in some cases for the first time since researchers began measuring such behavior.
This trend parallels the rise in mental health concerns among young women, and researchers worry that the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could amplify both patterns.
“It’s not only that we’re seeing women drinking more, but that they’re really being affected by this physically and mental health-wise,” says Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, who has studied addiction in women.
Research shows women suffer health consequences of alcohol — liver disease, heart disease and cancer — more quickly than men and even with lower levels of consumption.
Perhaps most concerning is that the rising gender equality in alcohol use doesn’t extend to the recognition or treatment of alcohol disorders, Sugarman says. So even as some women drink more, they’re often less likely to get the help they need.
In Cooper’s case, drinking eventually led her to drop out of college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She moved back home and was soon taking a shot or two of vodka each morning before heading to the office for her finance job, followed by two more drinks at lunch.
When she tried to quit on her own, she was quickly pulled back by the disease.
“That’s when I got scared, when I tried to not drink and only made it two days,” says Cooper, now 30. “I was drinking for survival, basically.”
Drinking to cope
Although the gender gap in alcohol consumption is narrowing among all ages, the reasons differ. For people over 26, women are increasing their alcohol consumption faster than men. Among teens and young adults, however, there’s an overall decline in drinking. The decline is simply slower for women.
That may sound like progress, says Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But it may indicate larger underlying issues.
“We have a real concern that while there might be fewer people drinking, many of those who are drinking might be doing so specifically to try to cope,” White says. “And that is problematic.”
Research suggests that people who drink to cope — as opposed to drinking for pleasure — have a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder. And while every individual’s reasons for drinking are different, studies have found that women are more likely to drink to cope than men.
Gillian Tietz began drinking in graduate school. A glass of wine would help ease her stress at first, she says, but when the glass was empty, her anxiety only worsened. Within a year, she was drinking daily, couldn’t sleep and started calling in sick. Today she hosts a podcast called Sober Powered.Gillian Tietz/Kaiser Health News
In Cooper’s teenage years, alcohol helped her overcome social anxiety, she says. Then she was sexually assaulted, and a new pattern emerged. Drink to deal with trauma. Experience new trauma while drinking. Repeat. “It’s hard to get out of that cycle of shame, drinking and abuse,” Cooper says.
Women are statistically more likely to experience childhood abuse or sexual assault than men. In recent years, studies have found rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide are climbing among teenage and young adult women. That could be driving their alcohol use, White says
And the layers of stress, isolation and trauma from COVID-19 could make things worse.