Women's Health Week May 10 - May 16, 2009

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Women's Health Week presents an ideal time to look back and see what we have learned about drug abuse and addiction and how it affects women's lives. Ongoing studies in this area are revealing much about shifting dynamics, particularly about the special vulnerabilities of girls and young adult women to drug abuse consequences.

Female drug abuse is not a trivial problem in this country. In 2007, as in prior years, nearly 6 percent of females 12 and older used illicit drugs in the past year, around two-thirds of this number in the past month. As happens generally with drug abuse, its occurrence among women has an impact that goes beyond the individual. Drug use during pregnancy, including tobacco and alcohol, can have many deleterious effects on both the mother and fetus, including a heightened drug abuse risk for the offspring in adolescence and young adulthood [Topics in Brief - Prenatal Exposure to Drugs of Abuse]. It is alarming that in 2006-2007, 5.2 percent of pregnant women aged 15-44 had used an illicit drug in the past month and 16.6 percent were current users of tobacco products.

But it isn't only adult women who are at risk. Among the youngest age group (12- to 17-year-olds), males and females had similar rates of current drug use for cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, and the nonmedical use of prescription psychotherapeutic drugs in 2007. Moreover, young females surpassed males in current cigarette use in 2006 and in dependence on or abuse of alcohol in 2006 and 2007. This is particularly troubling given that the adolescent brain is still developing, and we are just beginning to understand how drug exposure could affect brain structure, connectivity, and function during this vulnerable time.

In addition, research increasingly suggests that women may be more vulnerable than men to particular consequences of drug abuse, including addiction. This greater vulnerability may stem from gender-specific differences in motivations for drug use, differing sensitivities to drug effects, and a host of other biological and environmental factors. And while more research is needed, animal models and clinical studies alike suggest that females may be more vulnerable than males to the rewarding effects of drugs, which could increase their risk for dependence.

Recognizing that "one-size-fits-all" approaches don't always work, NIDA has strongly supported research to identify the gender-influenced aspects of drug abuse and addiction and is committed to using this knowledge to design, test, and implement more effective prevention, treatment, and services for both sexes. To further this important goal, NIDA's Women & Sex/Gender Research Group, with representation from across NIDA, is committed to infusing the study of sex/gender differences and female-specific issues in all areas of drug abuse research and to get these findings into real-world use.

Finally, the best message we can offer for this 10th anniversary of Women's Health Week is to urge everyone to do their part to vanquish the stigma and shame often associated with the disease of addiction so that our friends, neighbors, co-workers, mothers, daughters, and sisters will seek the help they need.

Women's Health Week Events, May 10-16, 2009

  • Department of Health and Human Services activities: http://www.womenshealth.gov/
  • NIH Office of Research on Women's Health activities
  • NIDA's activities:
    • Monday May 11, 2009, 2-3 pm, NIDA 3rd Floor Conference Room, or online
      Webinar, "Postpartum Smoking Relapse: Women's Weight and Worries," Dr. Michele Levine, University of Pittsburgh
      Sponsored by the Nicotine/Tobacco Interest Group and the Women & Sex/Gender Differences Research Group
    • Thursday, May 14, 2009, 10-11 am, Neuroscience Building, 6001 Executive Blvd., Conference Room C
      Seminar, "Sex Differences in the Human Brain and Implications for Addiction," Dr. Kelly Cosgrove, Yale University School of Medicine
      Sponsored by the Women & Sex/Gender Differences Research Group


Nora D. Volkow, M.D.