Public Release: 

First longitudinal study on lesbian health

University of Illinois at Chicago

A researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing has launched what is believed to be the first-ever longitudinal study of lesbian health.

Funded under a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the study will examine changes over a three-year period in patterns of drinking -- including drinking levels, heavy episodic drinking and intoxication -- and the factors that influence those changes.

"Understanding factors that increase or buffer lesbians' risk will permit the development of more culturally relevant prevention and intervention strategies," said Tonda Hughes, associate professor of nursing at UIC and the study's principal investigator. An expert on lesbian health and on women and addiction, Hughes has been studying women's drinking behavior for 15 years.

"Although it is assumed that lesbians are at heightened risk for alcohol-related problems, very few studies have addressed risk and protective factors," Hughes said. "Moreover, few studies have included comparison groups of heterosexual women."

Her sample -- one of the most diverse samples ever included in a study of lesbian health -- includes 450 lesbians in the Chicago area, recruited with the help of community-based organizations, community leaders and many individual women. Ranging in age from 18 to 84, more than half are women of color.

All of the women were interviewed as part of an earlier study Hughes conducted on lesbians' health and life experiences. Hughes will interview the women again in three years to assess changes in their drinking patterns.

She'll also compare the group with heterosexual urban and suburban women included in the National Study of Health and Life Experiences of Women, a 20-year longitudinal study of more than 1,600 women in the United States.

In the earlier study, also funded by the National Institutes of Health, Hughes examined rates of drinking, drinking patterns and drinking-related problems as well as behavioral problems and adverse health effects related to drinking. She initiated that study to obtain more accurate information about lesbians' drinking patterns and factors that put them at risk for alcohol problems.

"Many of the early studies of lesbians' and gay men's drinking used samples recruited from gay bars, so it's not surprising that these studies found high rates of alcohol abuse and alcoholism," Hughes said.

Preliminary results of Hughes' earlier study suggest that lesbians who drink do so at levels similar to those of heterosexual women. However, lesbians appear more likely to have been treated for alcohol-related problems or to be in recovery. In addition, lesbians report high rates of some risk factors, such as depression, that may increase their overall risk for heavy drinking or drinking-related problems.

The present study coincides with the publication of Healthy People 2010, a blueprint for the nation's health that includes sexual orientation as one of six demographic categories for which health disparities exist.

Other recent reports, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and the Institute of Medicine, have pointed out that health research focusing on lesbians is inadequate, especially given evidence of higher risk for some health problems.

"Continued research will not only provide greater insight into the factors that increase or decrease lesbians' drinking but help us understand how lesbians' drinking and their health changes over time," Hughes said. "This is an important step in filling the knowledge gap about lesbian health."


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