Women with drinking problems may show it in different ways than men, which could make their alcohol abuse harder to detect, according to a study published Monday.
In a study of 2,750 men and women, researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that the sexes showed some key differences in symptoms of problem drinking. For example, men more often reported problems like bingeing or getting into fights, but women were more likely to report feeling depressed or guilty about their drinking.
Psychologist Penny E. Nichol and her colleagues report the findings in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Traditionally, the rate of drinking problems and overt alcohol dependence has been higher among men than women. However, researchers have suggested that one reason could be a potential "male slant" in the criteria used to diagnose these problems -- criteria developed largely from studies of men.
The weight given to "male-oriented" symptoms, like bingeing and aggressive behavior, may mean that women's early drinking problems fly under the radar in some cases.
"It's possible we aren't capturing women's symptoms," Nichol told Reuters Health.
The current findings suggest it might be useful to develop a separate female-oriented scale for alcohol problems -- or at least a "gender-neutral" one, according to Nichol and her colleagues. However, much more research is needed before that happens, she said.
The researchers arrived at their findings by asking study participants a wide range of questions on their drinking habits, as well as the effects their drinking had on their feelings and behavior. Of the 105 signs of alcohol abuse the study considered, there were significant gender differences in one third.
Men more often reported they binged, got into fights when drinking, or they needed to drink increasing amounts in order to get drunk. Women were less likely to report such male-oriented symptoms, but they were more likely to have symptoms of depression or to say they felt guilty when they drank -- two traits not usually assessed in standard measures of alcohol abuse.
Instead, these measures typically focus on "outward behaviors," like when and how much a person drinks, according to Nichol. It's thought that women, in contrast, might have more "internalizing" symptoms, she noted -- a theory the current findings support.
Further studies, she said, are needed to confirm that there are significant sex differences in problem-drinking symptoms. Then researchers can look at whether sex-specific measurements improve diagnosis.