Drink poses greater threat to women

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Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. New research into gender differences between alcoholics suggests that drink for drink we get drunk faster and do more harm to our bodies than men while doing so.

And whether we imbibe or not, scientists have found that year on year, we lose more of the useful bits of our brains sooner than men. A mixture of hormones, chromosomes, and enzymes are to blame.

Professor Karl Mann, from the Addiction Research Unit at Tuebingen University in southern Germany, told an international meeting of psychiatrists yesterday that liver cirrhosis, brain damage, and cognitive impairment, such as memory loss and reduced powers of reasoning, start earlier in women alcoholics.

"When you compare the stage at which they enter treatment, women with almost six years of [alcohol] dependency have the same degree of cognitive impairment as men with ten years of dependency," Professor Mann said.

Women studied by Professor Mann's team were also found more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and other addictive disorders than men. Six months after a six-week course of in-patient treatment, more of the women had relapsed into alcholism than men.

Speaking on the second day of the meeting of the Association of European Psychiatrists, Professor Mann said there was increasing evidence that women had fewer of the enzymes in the liver and gut wall that break down alcohol before it enters the blood stream.

"A woman weighing 60kg will get drunk more quickly than a man weighing 60kg because of this," Professor Mann said. He studied 57 women and 62 men who drank on average 18 to 20 units a day - one unit is equivalent to half a pint of ordinary beer or lager, a small glass of wine, or a standard measure of spirits.

In a second study presented at the meeting, Dr Declan Murphy, a consultant psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, said there were "significant" differences between the sexes in brain ageing.

These occurred in parts of the brain associated with memory and the ability to locate oneself in time and place. They are also areas which show abnormalities in brain diseases such as late-on-set schizophrenia and Alzheimer's Disease .

Dr Murphy said there were sex differences in the symptoms associated with these diseases which give clues to differences in ageing between the sexes.

Women appear to lose more brain tissue as they age in areas of the brain linked with Alzheimer's Disease. It is known that female sufferers experience memory abnormalities earlier - involving an area of the brain known as the hippocampus - and this influenced by levels of sex hormones such as oestrogen. Women also experience earlier deterioration in the parietal lobe of the brain which controls their ability to manipulate objects.

Men show more abnormalities in the frontal lobe and tend to lose control over their impulsive behaviour and irritability as they grow older.

How they lose out

Women alcoholics are more susceptible than men to liver disease, brain damage, and cogntive defects like memory loss and reduced problem-solving ability.

As they grow older, women lose more cells than men in parts of the brain associated with Alzheimer's Disease, which may increase their susceptibility. Men lose cells from frontal lobes of the brain, which affect impulse control and irritability levels.