January 24, 2006

Alcoholism Risk Factors May Differ in Women

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Although genetic and environmental factors are key in the risk of developing alcoholism, the roots of problem drinking seem to be different for women and men, according to the findings from four studies of families affected by alcoholism.

For both sexes, problems with aggressive behavior in childhood -- including conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder -- signaled a heightened risk of alcoholism.

However, for women, childhood stress in general appeared to contribute to alcoholism risk, and women with a nervous, anxious personality were more likely to have an alcohol problem than those with a more balanced temperament.

More specifically, one study found that severe physical punishment in childhood appeared to raise the risk of alcoholism among females, but not males. Instances of severe punishment, the researchers speculate, may signal ongoing physical or sexual abuse.

"Clearly, there are some common antecedents (to alcoholism), such as conduct disorder or symptoms, but there are also predictors unique to each gender," Dr. Aruna Gogineni of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore said in a statement.

Gogineni chaired a meeting last year at which the study findings were first reported. A summary of the presentations is published in the current issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

While there has been much research on the transmission of alcoholism from generation to generation in families, relatively little has focused on daughters of alcoholics. One likely reason, according to Gogineni, is that men in general have a higher rate of alcoholism than women.

But understanding any gender differences in how alcoholism emerges is vital to preventing and treating the disorder, she and her colleagues point out.

The researchers found evidence confirming that children of alcoholics are at increased risk of the disorder. One study found that genes may be a more important risk factor for men than for women, while environment may be somewhat more influential for women.

In that study, alcoholism in a biological parent, as opposed to an adoptive parent, had a stronger effect on a son's risk of alcoholism.

This finding, the researchers note, needs to be "interpreted cautiously," since the evidence was only "suggestive."

Gogineni said she hopes the studies underscore that the causes of alcoholism are not identical for men and women.

"These are the kinds of findings," she said, "that call out for many more studies on women in order to determine how the mechanisms of alcoholic parental risk may differ in men and women."

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, February 2006.