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College women exceed alcohol limits more than men

Most college students are warned about the risks of binge drinking: date rapes, alcohol poisoning, accidental injuries, and even long-term memory problems. But many may not be aware of the health dangers of exceeding too many alcoholic drinks on a weekly basis; in fact, women are more likely to do this than men, according to a recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Addiction Medicine.

The researchers surveyed nearly 1000 freshman college students attending schools in New England once every two weeks for about four months to determine how much they drank daily and how much they drank over the course of the week. They found that women were about 50 percent more likely than men to exceed the daily and weekly limits set by the National Institutes of Alcoholic Abuse and Alcoholism.

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Those guidelines say no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week for women. For men, the guidelines state no more than four drinks in a day or 14 drinks per week.

The differences in the recommendations are based on cut-off points for disease risks, said study leader Bettina Hoeppner, a biostatistician at the Center for Addiction Medicine. A woman’s risk of developing breast cancer or liver disease rises above average when she exceeds that alcohol limit. So, too, does a man’s risk of developing liver disease and other alcohol-related health problems.

A lack of awareness concerning the weekly limit may be driving many women to exceed it. In fact, the researchers found that most of the gender differences were due to women exceeding their weekly rather than their daily limit.

“We didn’t ask them if they knew about these limits,” Hoeppner said, “but my hunch is that they aren’t aware of the long term consequences of drinking too much over time -- even if they do know about the dangers of binge drinking.”

Over the course of the first year of college, both male and female study participants reduced their daily drinking, and men tended to reduce their weekly drinkly as well. Women, on the other hand, kept right on exceeding their weekly limit.

That’s not so hard to do even in the years after college even for those who are moderate drinkers. A bottle of beer or glass of wine each weekday evening and two or three cocktails on the weekend night will set a woman over her weekly limit.

Since that doesn’t fit the pattern of binge drinking, many women may assume it’s perfectly fine for their health.

“Women may fail to mature out of this potentially harmful drinking pattern,” wrote the study researchers, “thinking it to be safe when it is not from the standpoint of toxicity.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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