Alcoholism's Gender Gap is Closing Fast

By Dirk Hanson 11/04/11

As women rapidly chase down men in the drinking stakes, one Harvard professor says alcoholism progresses faster in females—and that all-women treatment groups are vital. 

thefix_gender gap.jpg
Catching up fast Thinkstock

Everybody knows that men drink more than women, and that men slide into alcoholism more quickly than women, and…hold it right there. Harvard Psychiatry Professor Shelly F. Greenfield says you’ve already gotten it wrong. The gender ratio for drinking, and for other drugs, has been steadily narrowing since the early '90s. Yes, more men than women still drink. But in younger age groups, that gap is narrowing in a hurry. And in addition to possessing innate differences in metabolism and physiology, women profile very differently on the alcoholism scale to what common wisdom suggests. Greenfield believes, “the disease of alcohol dependence proceeds on a faster course in women, requiring medical treatment four years sooner, on average, than for male problem drinkers.” But it doesn’t end there. Treatments that frequently work for men don’t work equally well for women, she says. In fact, Greenfield favors all-female treatment groups, especially for less assertive women, or for women more vulnerable to relapse. In the all-female groups she studied, “people shared personal information very quickly. There seems to be a kind of bond of understanding,” compared to the dynamics of mixed-gender groups. She is gratified by the “explosion” of work being done on women and addiction, she told Harvard Magazine. “People often ask, ‘Well, what about men? Is there something that would be most helpful to their recovery?’ That’s a different question, and we don’t know the answer.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
dirk hanson.jpg

Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]