Women worldwide are catching up to men when it comes to alcohol consumption.
Previous research has suggested that men are not only more likely than women to drink alcohol — they’re also more likely to abuse alcohol and to drink so much that they harm their health. But a new analysis published Monday in BMJ Open finds that gap could be narrowing.
“Across the board, when we talk about any alcohol use, binge drinking, or alcohol-use disorder, generally males have a higher prevalence than females,” said study author Tim Slade of Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.
“But there’s a change in patterns of substance use — there’s a convergence between males and females,” Slade said.
Slade and his colleagues culled data from 68 studies on alcohol use among men and women across the globe. The studies spanned from 1948 to 2014, running up a sample size of more than 4 million people. Many were longitudinal: 16 followed subjects for at least 20 years, while another five tracked subjects for at least 30 years.
The researchers broke that data up into five-year increments to create birth cohorts. Then, they looked at three distinct data points: any alcohol use, problematic alcohol use like binge drinking, and prevalence of alcohol-related health problems.
The gap between men and women on alcohol consumption — the question, do you drink at all? — shrank steadily over the last 70 years. Men born in the early 1900s were more than twice as likely to drink alcohol than women. Men born in the late 1900s are only slightly more likely to drink alcohol than women.
The gap has also narrowed when it comes to the prevalence of alcohol abuse and alcohol-related health problems. That’s most evident among young adults, Slade said, which suggests health officials should keep tabs on today’s millennials as they age to monitor shifting alcohol use patterns.
It’s not clear whether men are drinking less alcohol or women are drinking more, though some of the studies point to the latter. While the study wasn’t designed to evaluate what’s driving the shift, the researchers speculate that women’s changing roles over the past century might play a part.
“It could be that increased participation in higher education and the work force came with increased pressure to drink,” Slade said. “It could be that women are under more strain or experiencing more stress. We’re not sure.”
But the researchers agree on one takeaway of the new data: Public health campaigns to combat alcohol abuse should be designed to appeal to both men and women.
“We can no longer think about alcohol-related problems as just problems for men,” Slade said.