Elizabeth Peña and the Truth About Alcoholic Women

on 24/10/14 at 1:15 pm

Booze News
indexAlcoholism and abuse is on the rise among women. Why they drink, and why the traditional treatment methods like A.A. don’t work for them.

When Elizabeth Peña died last week, her family said she died after a brief illness. We now know that the Cuban-American actress’s untimely demise was the result of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol abuse, in addition to acute gastrointestinal bleeding, cardiopulmonary arrest, and cardiogenic shock.

It’s understandable that her family would not wish to disclose the circumstances. To be a woman suffering from a drinking problem in America is a lonely enterprise, defined by stigma and judgment. And that’s tragic. Women in America are drinking more than ever before, and they are suffering the consequences in sharply rising numbers.

I spent three years researching the topic of women and drinking for a 2013 book, and I turned up some pretty arresting statistics. Gallup pollsters have consistently found that the more wealthy and educated a woman is, the more likely she is to drink. Federal studies show that the number of white, black, and Hispanic women who classified themselves as regular drinkers jumped significantly between the 1990s and early 2000s. They’re also the chief consumers of wine. According to the Wine Institute, they buy—and consume—the lion’s share of the 800 million gallons of wine sold in the U.S. each year.

On one hand, the rising drinking among women is a sign of parity. But unfortunately, this is one realm in which identical treatment has disparate outcomes. That is because women are more vulnerable than men to the toxic effects of alcohol: their bodies have more fat, and less water, than men’s. Fat retains alcohol, and water dilutes it, so women drinking the same amount as men who are evenly matched in size and weight become drunk more quickly, and stay intoxicated longer. Women also make less of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol before it hits the bloodstream.

This may be why serious alcohol-related deaths and illnesses are on the rise. Peña’s death, it turns out, is part of a dismaying trend: Between 2002 and 2012, the number of U.S. females women who died from cirrhosis rose 13 percent. (Among men, the rate for that same period rose 7 percent.) Between 1999 and 2008, the number of severely intoxicated young women who wound up in E.R.s rose by 52 percent. From 1992 and 2007, the number of middle-aged women who checked into rehab nearly tripled.