The gender gap is closing in many arenas – including the local watering hole.
A new study shows that women have nearly caught pace with men when it comes to rates of alcohol consumption, a trend that might have a significant impact on the health of the population in future years.
What’s more, the trend line appears to be more acute between younger generations, specifically those of college or high school age.
Historically, men have far outpaced their female counterparts in drinking alcohol, with studies showing that men were at least two times – and perhaps as much as 12 times – as likely to imbibe in the early 1900s. A new analysis, however, shows that women have caught up over the last century, “with rates of alcohol use appearing to converge,” according to researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.
The increased tippling among women could spell massive health consequences, given the link between alcohol and health risks, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, say researchers.
A closer look at the convergence
The research team from UNSW analyzed 68 studies involving more than 4 million individuals, focusing largely on populations in North America and Europe.
Comparing reported drinking rates, as well as alcohol-related health hazards, the researchers spotted a curious pattern. Between 1891 and 1966, the gender gap narrowed by a slim margin, or about 1.2% every five years.
Yet that minor movement in drinking trends came to a close around 1966, when the rates of drinking among women jumped significantly, shrinking the drinking gap between men and women by 10.2% every five years between 1966 and 2000.
That gradual shrinking is what researchers term “sex convergence,” and it has led to rapid changes in social norms. “By the end of the last century men’s and women’s drinking had almost reached parity,” write three of the study’s authors in a related opinion piece.
“We don’t have a definitive answer to what has driven the rise in alcohol consumption among women but in many countries around the world, we have seen substantial developments in broader social, cultural and economic factors for women and increasingly accepting societal norms around female drinking,” the authors continue.
The new study also turns a bit of conventional wisdom on its head. “Alcohol use and alcohol use disorders have historically been viewed as a male phenomenon,” write the authors in the study appearing in the journal BMJ Open.
While the study may highlight a hidden element of increased women’s rights, it also exposes a newfound risk for women. “Most people would argue these changes have been positive. However, increased exposure to alcohol for women also means increased exposure to the physical and mental health risks associated with drinking too much,” write the study authors.
That risk bears to be monitored, as the young women analyzed in the study are sweeping into older age groups.
“Many of the men and women who are contributing to these changing drinking patterns are only now in their 20s or 30s. We need to keep tracking population trends in drinking as these cohorts age into their 40s, 50s and beyond,” conclude the study authors.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.