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May 13, 2007
NIDA Director, Dr. Nora D. Volkow

Women's Health Week is a perfect opportunity for us to take a look at how drug abuse and addiction affect women and how the current dynamics are shifting, particularly in young girls.

First, female drug abuse is not a trivial problem in this country. Recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration show that in 2005, more than 6 percent of females 12 and older were current illicit drug users, and that more than 12 percent used an illicit drug in the past year. In addition, nearly 600,000 females were admitted to drug treatment facilities in the United States, representing more than 30 percent of the total treatment admissions.

Second, the gender characteristics of drug abuse and addiction are changing. For many years, males exceeded females in their rates of drug abuse and in the degree of resulting problems. Recent trends indicate, however, that girls are now catching up and, in some cases, surpassing boys in their abuse of licit and illicit drugs. And while more research is needed, both animal models and clinical studies suggest that females may be more vulnerable than males to the rewarding effects of drugs, heightening their risk for dependence.

NIDA's broad research portfolio is geared to identify and counter these trends by discovering the underlying biological and social factors that lead to drug abuse and addiction, and the best ways to use this knowledge to develop, test, and implement targeted prevention and treatment programs. For males and females, differing motivations behind the abuse of particular drugs may require specialized approaches. For example, although girls and boys both abuse prescription drugs, girls are more likely to do so for the drugs' prescribed purpose (e.g., stimulants to lose weight, increase alertness), while boys are more likely to abuse them to get high, or, in the case of steroids, to excel in sports and achieve a more muscular physique.

NIDA researchers use such knowledge to develop and test responsive prevention approaches that take gender into account. An example is a successful prevention program targeting female athletes. Known as Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives (ATHENA), the program addresses a constellation of risk behaviors, and is skillfully adapted to address the motivations behind girls' greater propensity to abuse prescription medications to improve performance and body image. On the treatment side, research is focusing on how to better adapt interventions to women's specific needs, including those associated with childcare and with higher rates of co-occurring depression and physical and sexual abuse among female substance abusers.

The best drug abuse and treatment message we can offer during Women's Health Week 2007 is that "one-size-fits-all" approaches do not always work, and we must continue to support research leading us to more tailored and more effective treatments that recognize gender implications. To further this important goal, NIDA's Women & Gender Research Group, with representation from all of NIDA's program divisions and offices, is committed to infusing the study of sex/gender differences and female-specific issues in all areas of drug abuse research and to disseminate those findings.

Nora D. Volkow, M.D.