New Saint Louis University research found that although white women are more likely to drink or binge drink prior to pregnancy, African-American women are less likely to reduce drinking during pregnancy, which may be linked to a higher rate of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) among the population.
The findings may help explain the disparities in FAS rates between white and African-American populations, while also drawing attention to the need for alcohol education programs and interventions for at-risk women.
“Lack of education and awareness about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy is a big problem not just among the at-risk populations, but also among health care providers,” says Leigh Tenkku, Ph.D., director for research in the department of community and family medicine at Saint Louis University and a study author.
“There are still misconceptions that drinking in moderation during pregnancy is OK.”
The researchers compared the drinking patterns of 280,000 pregnant and non-pregnant women ages 18 to 44 years old using data collected in a nationwide telephone survey from 2001 to 2005 by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Demographic information including pregnancy status, age, race, education, income, marital status, cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption helped determine who is more likely to drink during pregnancy.
The researchers found that African-American women were less likely to reduce alcohol consumption during pregnancy than white women (other races were excluded for the purpose of this study). And while all pregnant women in the sample drank less than the non-pregnant women, women ages 34 to 44 years old were less likely to reduce alcohol consumption than younger women.
While women with a high school education reported the greatest number of drinks per month when not pregnant, the study found that they drank the least during pregnancy. This suggests that education and access to information on the dangers of drinking during pregnancy, not pre-pregnancy alcohol consumption, is a better indicator of who is more likely to drink during pregnancy.
Drinking during pregnancy can create serious physical abnormalities, neurological and behavioral problems, all characteristics of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Babies born with FAS are often born preterm, have low birth weight and long term growth problems. Fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe birth defect associated with drinking during pregnancy, is estimated to affect 1 to 2 babies born per 1,000.
Children with FAS are usually born to mothers who did not reduce their alcohol consumption during pregnancy. However, Tenkku says that no amount of drinking is safe during pregnancy.
“Because there’s no proof that any amount of alcohol at any stage of the pregnancy is safe, the Surgeon General currently recommends not drinking at all during pregnancy,” she explained. “In fact, alcohol effects can be so severe that all women who may become pregnant are advised to abstain from alcohol.”
“The most frustrating thing about this debilitating birth defect is that it’s completely preventable,” Tenkku said. “Why wouldn’t women want to do everything in their power to give their child the best start possible?”
One challenge is that prenatal alcohol exposure often occurs before a woman realizes she is pregnant. Therefore, while it’s important to educate at-risk women about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy, Tenkku says there also needs to be an effort to educate all women who could become pregnant.
The study was published in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease, aging and brain disease, and infectious disease.
Source: Saint Louis University Medical Center