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Women who Experienced Child Abuse More Likely to Have Alcohol Problems as Adults

A new study has found that adult females who experienced physical or sexual abuse during childhood are much more likely to abuse alcohol in later life than other women.

Physical or sexual abuse experienced during childhood can create increased risks of future mental health problems, including alcohol dependence during adulthood, according to previous research. Yet in this new study conducted at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, CA, researchers have identified the levels of risk for past year and lifetime binge drinking problems, alcohol dependence, and other alcohol-related conditions experienced specifically by women who either have a history of childhood sexual abuse or childhood physical abuse.

Using data from the 2005 U.S. National Alcohol Survey, researcher E Anne Lown and her colleagues included a nationally representative population of 3,680 female participants in their study. In the survey, women were questioned about their histories of physical or sexual childhood abuse, which were compared to eight different measures for current alcohol consumption problems and lifetime alcohol abuse problems. To ensure that the results reflected the direct associations that exist between adulthood alcohol problems and childhood sexual and physical abuse only, the researchers controlled such variable factors as ethnicity, age, marital status, education, employment status, and family history of alcoholism. Also, researchers measured other determining factors such as type of abuse, injuries caused by the abuse, and having multiple abusers, family abusers, or non-family abusers.

Women who had either sexual or physical abuse consistently demonstrated strong associations with all problem drinking behaviors across the spectrum, researchers found. For example, women who reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse were more likely to have past year binge-drinking behavior (1.7 times likelier), alcohol dependence (7.2 times likelier), and alcohol-related consequences such as drinking to the point of creating a threat to physical health (3.6 times likelier) than women who had not experienced abuse. Women who were sexually abused were also associated with consuming a greater number of alcoholic drinks per year compared to women who had no history of abuse (124 drinks vs. 74 drinks) as well as lifetime alcohol-related consequences (3.5 times likelier) and alcohol dependence (3.7 times likelier).

Additionally, women who had reported experiencing childhood physical abuse were strongly associated with 4 out the 8 alcohol consumption measures included in the study. Women who had histories of both sexual abuse and physical abuse were associated with a greater propensity for violent behavior, poor health, legal problems, work-related problems, and family consequences. In comparison, women who were sexually abused as a child showed a higher rate of alcohol dependence and alcohol-related consequences than women who were physically abused, had multiple physical abusers, had family abusers, had non-family abusers, or had injuries caused by physical abuse.

Though physical abuse and sexual abuse are often comorbid conditions, the researchers were able to examine the effects of just sexual abuse and just physical abuse on alcohol consumption behavior because of the study’s large population. However, even though the researchers identified strong links between all types of abuse and all levels of problem alcohol behavior, they acknowledge that these rates may be even greater since individuals who have experienced harsher levels of abuse may have been unwilling to participate in the study. Because childhood abuse can leave lasting psychological and emotional scars, discussing such difficult subjects may have been too much for these individuals. Regardless, the overall message produced by the study’s findings is that children and adults who have experienced any type of abuse need to be met with adequate and reliable support services within their communities. The researchers suggest that patient screenings for history of abuse should be incorporated into any intervention program or health care setting—not just alcohol abuse programs—so that affected patients can receive treatment for their conditions as soon as possible.

The researchers’ study is available online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Source: Medical News Today, Childhood Sexual, Physical Abuse Linked To Drinking Problems In Women, November 18, 2010

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