The results of the NIH study are consistent with other research that shows women do not hold their liquor as well as men. Women are thought to be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol because they are smaller in size and have a lower proportion of body water relative to fat than men. They also have lower concentrations of a metabolizing enzyme which helps to break alcohol down. As a result, they become inebriated more easily. Monthly hormone fluctuations also affect alcohol metabolism and can make blood alcohol content levels jump faster than in men.
Scientists believe that more studies on alcoholic women are needed after short and long periods of sobriety to determine the effects of alcohol on thinking ability, motor skills, and balance — and whether the effects are reversible.
Why? "In alcoholic men, even when sober, they still have impaired balance, which has implications for broken hips in older age and other potentially life-threatening health problems such as a decline in mental abilities," says Edith Sullivan, associate professor of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and an investigator in an alcohol-related study at Stanford Research Institute. "We don't know whether this is also true in alcoholic women."
Hommer thinks his study should prompt researchers to look to other forms of treatment for women who may have alcohol-induced brain damage. "Women alcoholics do not have a good track record of recovery," he says. "The existing methods aren't working. The thinking has always been that they need different treatment but...we also need to look at the biological reasons as well."
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Alcohol can wreak havoc on the brain: everything from self-control to loss of inhibitions. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, lowers inhibitions, and impairs judgment. Drinking can lead to risky behaviors, including unwanted sexual advances, having unprotected sex, or playing around with a gun. In 1998, 35.8 percent of traffic deaths of 15- to 20-year-olds were alcohol-related.
Source: CSAP, SAMHSA, HHS.