Newswise — The University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing has received a $3 million federal grant to continue research to identify risk factors for excessive drinking among lesbians.

The five-year study, led by Tonda Hughes, professor of health systems science, will examine how stressful experiences -- childhood sexual abuse, adult sexual assault and discrimination based on ethnicity or sexual orientation -- are related to psychological harm and hazardous drinking in adult women.

Data will be collected from a diverse sample of 384 adult lesbians in the Chicago area who were previously interviewed by Hughes and her research team in 2000 and 2004. Another 250 new subjects -- who are 18 to 25 years old and of African-American and Hispanic descent -- will also be interviewed.

The results of the study, Hughes said, will be used to understand how women cope with stresses in their lives. The group will be compared with heterosexual urban and suburban women 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.

The findings may help develop more effective alcohol abuse prevention and intervention strategies, Hughes said.

Hughes has researched lesbian health issues for more than 20 years. In 1999, she initiated the first phase of the research in a study of drinking behavior among nearly 450 lesbians in the Chicago area. The study provided information on lesbians' nontraditional roles, the impact of discrimination, and social-networking behaviors that often encourage socializing in bars.

"Myths and stereotypes of lesbians as alcoholics and heavy drinkers are largely based on studies conducted in the 1970s that recruited most of their samples from gay bars," Hughes said. "Our research is designed to provide a much more realistic picture of the patterns and variability of lesbians' drinking, and to provide information for developing alcohol abuse prevention and early intervention strategies."

In 2002, Hughes launched the second phase of the research, which was believed to be the first-ever longitudinal study of lesbian health. Follow-up interviews were conducted four years later to learn how the subjects' drinking patterns had changed and what factors had influenced those changes.

The new study, combined with the 2000 and 2004 surveys, will provide the most comprehensive data yet available on the characteristics and determinants of hazardous drinking among lesbians, Hughes said.

Hughes' earlier studies 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 certain risk factors, such as depression, that may increase their risk for drinking problems.

The grant is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of the National Institutes of Health. Hughes' coworkers include Alicia Matthews, associate professor of health systems science; Timothy Johnson, director of the Survey Research Laboratory; and Young Cho, research assistant professor in the Survey Research Laboratory.

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