AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Alcohol consumption rose sharply in the U.S. during the pandemic. I'm sure none of us are surprised to hear that. Heavy drinking among women especially soared. It's a trend that was already happening for years before COVID-19, and the latest data shows that young women and teenage girls drink at higher rates than their male peers. Aneri Pattani of Kaiser Health News has been covering the rise of alcohol use and abuse among women. She joins us now.
ANERI PATTANI: Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So just to start, what do we know about why people drink? I'm curious if we're seeing some differences between, like, why men drink and why women drink.
PATTANI: So it's hard to pinpoint for any specific individual why they drink, but research shows on a general level, men are more likely to drink for pleasure or for enjoyment. And women more often drink to cope with things like stress or anxiety.
PATTANI: And that can be concerning because people who drink to cope, research shows, are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
CHANG: Well, I mean, this pandemic has been stressful and anxious for basically everybody, right? So does the increase of drinking to cope suggest to you that women suffer more from stress and anxiety than, say, men do?
PATTANI: Yeah. So certainly, you know, increase in drinking during the pandemic has been reported. But this is something that predated the pandemic, right? Drinking to cope, a lot of researchers say, could be the reason why we're seeing this shrinking gap between men and women and the amount they drink. Especially when it comes to teen and young adult women, reports of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide - all of those have been rising pretty quickly. And so a lot of researchers are saying if we want to address the fact that women are drinking more, we might need to be looking at these underlying mental health issues.
CHANG: Right. Well, just to speak on a strictly physical level, how does heavy alcohol use affect women versus men?
PATTANI: Women's bodies have less water than men's, even when you're talking about two people of the same weight. So that means with the same number of drinks, women reach higher levels of alcohol in their blood more quickly, and their body tissues are exposed to more alcohol per drink. The result of that is that they get sicker faster from alcohol...
PATTANI: And that means your shorter-term things like blackouts but also longer-term effects like liver disease, cancer or developing alcohol use disorder.
CHANG: Well, now that we know that women are drinking about the same amount as men are, have resources for alcoholism, like treatment programs and such, adapted to that new reality?
PATTANI: Not quite - I mean, even as women are drinking more, they're not necessarily getting more treatment. A lot of people I spoke with said things like, you know, that stereotypical image of someone who's affected by alcohol is still a man, so that means it's often harder to recognize problematic drinking in women. And even if it is recognized, treatment centers and recovery programs like 12Step are heavily male, right? A lot of men are participants. A lot of men lead those sessions. And that can be uncomfortable for some women, especially if they've experienced sexual violence or trauma. So there are starting to be some programs that are - treatment programs that are women-centered. And there is some research that shows those are more effective, but it's early on.
CHANG: That is a Aneri Pattani. She is a reporter at Kaiser Health News.
Thank you so much for joining us today.
PATTANI: Thank you.
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