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Addiction cuts across demographic lines of class, race and gender. Just like other diseases that tend to be chronic, an earlier onset of use is related to greater problems. The younger women are when they begin to use drugs, the bigger their risk for addiction and other health consequences. For example, 25% of females who began using any substance before age 15 have a substance use disorder compared to nearly 3% of those who first used at age 21 or older. Although women may start using certain substances at a later age than men, they may progress more rapidly than men to serious health consequences from their use.
This is cause for concern given what we know about how addictive substances affect women compared to men. For instance, when using the same amount of a substance or less, women are more vulnerable to addiction; alcohol-related liver and heart disease; brain damage; and hospitalization from the non-medical use of prescription pain medications. Additionally, women experience some unique consequences of substance use and addiction, such as breast cancer and complications with pregnancy. Women also differ from men in their motivations to use substances. Compared with boys and young men, girls and young women are more likely to use substances in attempts to lose weight, relieve stress, improve mood, or reduce social inhibitions.
Given that only 7.5% of females with substance use disorders (excluding nicotine) received professional treatment in the past year, it is critically important for families, employers and health care providers to facilitate girls’ and women’s entry into treatment, and treatment providers must tailor treatment to the unique circumstances that girls and women with addiction face.