Girls binge drinking at younger age, more often


In recounting her battles with alcohol, author Koren Zailckas doesn't skimp on the details - her first drink at the age of 14, the years of blackouts and hangovers, waking up in a strange man's apartment and, finally, her embrace of sobriety at the ripe old age of 22.

Her story is notable because she crafted it into a best-selling book, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, not because it's rare.

Recent surveys suggest that today's girls and college-age women are abusing alcohol in ways not seen in previous generations - by binge drinking more often and at earlier ages. As a result, students such as Zailckas can be found in every high school and college in the nation.

Such drinking patterns have immediate consequences for young people of both sexes: They can lead to failure in school, increase the chances of a car accident and may even cause subtle brain damage.

For girls and women, however, the effects may be particularly dire.

They are much more likely than boys or young men to experience physical and sexual assault while intoxicated. And studies show that alcohol takes a much greater physical toll on women than on men - in a much shorter time.

"Girls' drinking absolutely has implications for their long-term health," says David Jernigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. "They are hurting their odds - a lot."

Although the majority of adolescent girls and young women do not binge drink (estimates range from 16 percent to 27 percent), three national surveys suggest binge drinking is holding steady or increasing among girls even as it declines slightly in boys. Binge drinking is usually defined as five or more drinks consumed in one sitting.

Moreover, surveys show younger girls are starting to drink around the same age as boys, and with similar drinking patterns.

Their choices are changing too. Between 1991 and 2004 the proportion of binge drinking girls who used hard liquor rose from 14 percent to 18.2 percent, said Jernigan, citing unpublished data from the most recent annual poll conducted by the University of Michigan. The survey also showed eighth-grade girls with a slightly higher binge drinking rate than eighth-grade boys: 11.8 percent versus 10.8 percent.

"The gender gap for young kids has effectively closed," says Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at New York's Columbia University. "But the main problem is that the physiological impact is much stronger on girls than on boys."

Effects on females

In the body, alcohol is dispersed by water. Women have less water in their bodies to dilute alcohol and more fat, which holds alcohol. The enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which helps metabolize alcohol, is also less active in women.

Thus, drink for drink, women's brains and organs are exposed to a higher concentration of alcohol than men - so women are more likely to develop inflammation of the liver and to die of cirrhosis.

"We know that two years of a woman's drinking equals 10 years of a man's," says Becky Flood, executive director of New Directions for Women, a nonprofit substance abuse treatment center in Costa Mesa, Calif. "What alcohol does to the body of a woman in her developmental years is very damaging. We even see cognitive impairment in women."

Women are also more likely to become dependent on alcohol faster than men, says Foster - which is why girls and college-age women who drink heavily are of particular concern.

Moreover, in one of the few long-term studies of college-age binge drinkers, researchers at the University of Washington found a link between bingeing in college and bingeing at ages 30 and 31.

"What our study suggests is adolescent girls who binge drink are three times more likely to binge drink in adulthood, compared with adolescent girls who don't binge drink," says Carolyn A. McCarty, a pediatrics researcher at the University of Washington and lead author of a 2004 study in the journal Pediatrics.

The rapidity with which alcohol problems can escalate in women should serve as a warning to girls and their parents, experts say. Episodes of getting drunk, throwing up, passing out or worse could be the start of long-term health problems.

A search for answers

The changing face of alcohol use among girls has led to efforts to better understand why girls drink, how their drinking differs from boys and how to prevent alcohol abuse.

Many blame the alcohol industry for advertising and marketing that entice more girls to drink. The trend in sweet alcoholic beverages, such as "alcopops" and packaged cups of fruit-flavored gelatin and alcohol, may appeal more to girls and young drinkers, experts say.

Other factors may lead adolescent girls to drink, including the desire to feel less inhibited in social situations, to control their moods and to compete with boys by showing they can drink as much.

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