Alcohol hits women harder

Alcohol abuse chips away at intelligence more in women than in men, even when less alcohol is consumed over fewer years, new research suggests.

Alcohol-related cognition problems affect drinkers' "visual working memory, spatial planning, problem solving and cognitive flexibility," said study corresponding author Barbara Flannery, a senior scientist at the research institute RTI International in Baltimore.

But it's not only drinkers' professional lives that may flounder as a result of reduced cognition, Flannery said. Alcoholics may have difficulty behaving appropriately in social situations, she said.

"Cognitive flexibility enables you to know how to communicate differently in a business environment than you would with your friends," she added.

The study findings were based on a comparison of test results from male and female alcoholics and non-alcoholics from Russia. All alcoholic participants in the study were recruited at the Leningrad Regional Centre of Addictions.

The tests revealed that non-alcoholics trumped the alcoholics, who had been abstinent for three weeks, in a series of computerised tasks. The tasks evaluated the ability to match patterns in shapes, remember the locations of stimuli, and name colours when confronted with contradictory information.

Female alcoholics performed worst
The female alcoholics fared significantly worse in most instances than the male alcoholics, a finding that prompted Flannery to call for a "gender-sensitive public awareness campaign that highlights these cognitive deficits."

On average, the female alcoholics in the study had used alcohol for 10.6 years, compared to 14.8 years for the males.

The study corroborated previous research that found female alcoholics scored lower than their male counterparts in tests that assessed working memory, visuospatial skills and psychomotor speed. Other studies have shown that female drinkers experience accelerated damage to the liver, heart and muscles, compared with male alcoholics, the researchers said.

Flannery's study compared 24 female alcoholics, 78 male alcoholics and 68 male and female non-alcoholics. All were under age 40 to "avoid age effects of cognitive parameters," she said. Flannery acknowledged that the number of female alcoholics was small and a larger participant pool would be desirable for future research. The non-alcoholics were more educated, a factor that might have marginally affected the results, she said.

The findings were published in the May issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Teens may be at highest risk
It's not known to what degree and at what period of sobriety alcoholics can recover cognitive impairments, said Flannery. But research on adolescent rats subjected to binge doses of alcohol at Duke University suggests the brain of the alcoholic teen is more adversely affected by memory loss than adult alcoholics. This indicates that teen girls who abuse alcohol may be most vulnerable to long-term cognitive loss.

Dr Matthew Torrington, a substance abuse specialist at UCLA and medical director of an addiction-treatment centre in Santa Monica, California, said that while each patient is "biologically, psychologically and spiritually different," female alcoholics seem to experience a "tremendous amount of shame and stigma."

"The higher percentage of body fat in females means alcohol is twice as toxic," he said, citing World Health Organization's guidelines that define at-risk females as those who consume at least seven drinks a week, and at-risk males as those who consume at least 14. – (HealthDayNews)

Read more:
A-Z of Alcohol
Physical and psychological effects of alcohol

April 2007

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