Closing the drinking divide

Research by UND’s Sharon and Richard Wilsnack, on diminishing differences in men and women’s alcohol habits, featured in ‘The Atlantic’

Sharon and Richard Wilsnack

For more than 35 years, Sharon Wilsnack, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, and Richard Wilsnack, professor emeritus at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, have conducted the largest and longest study of drinking behavior in women. Photo from UND archives.

When it comes to research on alcohol and women, the Wilsnacks are world-renowned.

For more than 35 years, Sharon Wilsnack, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, and Richard Wilsnack, professor emeritus at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, have conducted the largest and longest study of drinking behavior in women.

As their findings and data have grown, more and more information is coming to light about women and alcohol.

The Wilsnacks’ research is focused on drinking behaviors in general, specifically on how alcoholism affects women and how alcohol abuse can harm others.

They’ve been in the news for years, and most recently their work was featured in The Atlantic. The article, “Millennial Women Have Closed the Drinking Gap,” focuses on how women and men have used alcohol differently. Historically, men have tended to drink more heavily and consume more alcohol than women.

That gap is closing, they said.

In 1997, when they published a comprehensive book on gender and alcohol, gender differences in alcohol were significant. And in 2009, after leading an international research project on gender and alcohol in 35 countries, they said, “More drinking and heavy drinking occur among men, more long-term abstention occurs among women, and no cultural differences or historical changes have entirely erased these differences.”

Now that drinking gap is nearly erased, according to the article in The Atlantic.

Women are just as likely as men to have drinking problems. That finding has resonated with the media, and publications have picked up on it.

The change may have to do with more women working outside the home.

“When women improve their education, employment and status,” said the Wilsnacks, “they are likely also to have more opportunities to drink.”

20-year study

The Wilsnacks have directed a 20-year longitudinal study of drinking behavior in U.S. women, and coordinate an international collaborative research project on gender and alcohol that involves researchers from more than 40 countries.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, has funded their research for more than 35 years, with a total of about $15 million going to them and UND.

The Institute recently awarded a four-year, $525,000 grant to the Wilsnacks, as part of a larger worldwide project, to look at harming effects that can take place through alcohol consumption.

“Targeted prevention programs could then be designed to reduce these persons’ risks of heavy drinking,” said Sharon Wilsnack. “In addition, the study could identify specific social or cultural conditions that reduce the effectiveness of alcohol policies, for example, a drinking culture of occasional but extremely heavy drinking. This, in turn, might suggest programs for altering these cultural conditions in a way that would make them lesser barriers to effective alcohol policy.”

Careers of excellence

The Wilsnacks and their globally-important research has long been a source of pride for UND.

Since arriving at UND in 1978, the Wilsnacks have been prolific publishers of books and papers on the subject of gender and substance abuse. They also have addressed numerous national and international audiences on the subjects.

Their collective research has garnered recognition as well, from UND to the national scene.

Early in her career, Sharon was named an “Outstanding Young Woman of North Dakota” and later one of “Ten Outstanding Young Women of America.” She has received UND faculty scholar awards for excellence in research and a “Women Who Care Award” from the UND Women’s Center.

Equally decorated, Richard was the 1995 recipient of UND’s Thomas J. Clifford Research Excellence Award and a 2002 award for “Excellence in Neuroscience Research.

The Wilsnacks received their master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University before coming to UND.