Alcohol's Unique Effects on Cognition in Women: A 2020 (Re)view to Envision Future Research and Treatment

Alcohol Res. 2020 Sep 10;40(2):03. doi: 10.35946/arcr.v40.2.03. eCollection 2020.


Alcohol use and misuse is increasing among women. Although the prevalence of drinking remains higher in men than women, the gender gap is narrowing. This narrative review focuses on the cognitive sequelae of alcohol consumption in women. Studies of acute alcohol effects on cognition indicate that women typically perform worse than men on tasks requiring divided attention, memory, and decision-making. Beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption on cognition have been reported; however, a number of studies have cautioned that other factors may be driving that association. Although chronic heavy drinking affects working memory, visuospatial abilities, balance, emotional processing, and social cognition in women and men, sex differences mark the severity and specific profile of functional deficits. The accelerated or compressed progression of alcohol-related problems and their consequences observed in women relative to men, referred to as "telescoping," highlights sex differences in the pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, cognitive, and psychological consequences of alcohol. Brain volume deficits affecting multiple systems, including frontolimbic and frontocerebellar networks, contribute to impairment. Taken together, sex-related differences highlight the complexity of this chronic disease in women and underscore the relevance of examining the roles of age, drinking patterns, duration of abstinence, medical history, and psychiatric comorbidities in defining and understanding alcohol-related cognitive impairment.

Keywords: AUD; acute consumption; alcohol; cognition; recovery; women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism*
  • Alcoholism / metabolism*
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / metabolism*
  • Ethanol / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sex Characteristics


  • Ethanol