Women experience a wealth of unique health challenges, many of which remain under-treated or poorly addressed. Addiction is no exception, according to Dr. Lipi Roy, a physician specializing in addiction.
In a recent Forbes article, Dr. Roy points out the main gender differences between men and women as they apply to substance use disorder treatment. She also says a lot of the research into addiction was historically male-centered until the 1990s, when agencies finally required studies to include women in their research.
“While men are more likely than women to develop addiction, women are more likely to face greater challenges. Women experience addiction-related medical or social consequences faster than men, find it harder to quit, and are more vulnerable to relapse,” says Roy.
Gender and the Rate of Addiction
Without a doubt, the effect of substances and the rate of addiction differ by gender. Here’s a few examples:
- Women are more likely to be prescribed opioids than men and to continue them long-term.
- Women’s increased risk of opioid misuse is emotionally-related; in men the risk is related to legal or behavioral problems.
- Women are more likely to be prescribed prescription painkillers at higher doses than men and become dependent more quickly.
- The CDC cited a 400 percent increase in prescription-related overdoses among women between 1999 and 2010, while men saw only a 237 percent increase in that same timeframe.
- Overdose deaths among women tripled between 2010 and 2013, according to the National Center for Health Statistics
- Alcohol kills more women than opioids. According to the CDC, in 2010, 26,000 women died from alcohol abuse, while 13,000 died from opioid abuse.
- Alcohol dependence develops more quickly in men than women.
- Alcohol-related brain injury and liver disease develops faster in men than women.
- Women are more prone to the effects of alcohol – they weigh less, have more fatty tissue, and possess lower levels of the enzymes needed to metabolize alcohol.
- Women face greater risks from smoking, including higher incidences of lung cancer and heart attack.
Effective Treatment Strategies for Women
Exposure to drugs and alcohol also increases the risk of pregnancy-related complications, such as neonatal abstinence syndrome and stillbirths. Research shows that 80 percent of all pregnancies among women with substance abuse disorders are unplanned. This same group of women are also prone to co-occurring illness, such as post-natal depression.
So, what are the most effective strategies for women? Roy suggests treatment programs that provide comprehensive services tailored to care for women and their unique needs — with pregnant women as a priority. She refers to the American Society of Medicine and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommendations that we need to screen women in order to provide family planning services and determine their mental health needs. Most importantly, Roy says we need to stop treating mothers with SUD as child abusers, and help them receive the care they need.
Additional Reading: My Journey Through Alcohol Dependence and Postpartum Psychosis
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