The opioid epidemic has garnered a great deal of public attention in recent years, with the number of overdose deaths rising rapidly throughout the 2000s. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014 more people died from alcohol-induced causes than from overdoses of prescription painkillers and heroin combined. Americans are drinking alcohol at higher levels than ever before.
Philip J. Cook, a Duke University professor who studies alcohol consumption patterns and their effects, notes that per-capita alcohol consumption has been increasing since the late 1990s. According to a research report posted by Science Daily, nearly 32 million American adults surveyed reported consuming more than double the number of drinks defined as “binge drinking” at least once in the past year. A report of the findings is online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Using alcohol does not necessarily equate to alcohol abuse, but it is easy to transition from a moderate drinker to a heavy one, and from there it’s a slippery slope downward.
Binge Drinking Defined
According to the CDC, excessive drinking includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21. Binge drinking, the most common form of excessive drinking, is defined as four or more drinks during a single occasion for women, five or more for men. Heavy drinking is defined as consuming 8 or more drinks per week for women, 15 or more for men. Most people who are excessively drinking alcohol are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent. However, there are significant risks to sustained alcohol use.
Drinking Alcohol at Higher Levels
The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) is a series of the major epidemiologic surveys that examine alcohol use and its co-occurrence with drug use and related psychiatric conditions. The researchers reported an increasing number of survey respondents were binge drinking more frequently and at higher levels. Side effects of alcohol abuse are deadly on their own, but extreme binge drinking is especially common among study participants who used other drugs.
“Drinking at such high levels can suppress areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions such as breathing and heart rate, thereby increasing one’s risk of death,” said senior author, Aaron White, Ph.D., Senior Scientific Advisor to the NIAAA Director. “The risk increases further if other sedative drugs, particularly opioids or benzodiazepines, are added to the mix.”
Long-Term Health Risks of Drinking Alcohol
Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon
- Learning and Memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance
- Mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety
- Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment
- Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism
For many, it’s a challenge to recognize excessive drinking. There is a problem if it causes one’s relationships, school or work, or social activities to suffer. Specific warning signs include:
- lying about or hiding your drinking
- drinking to relax or feel better
- “blacking out” regularly
- being unable to stop once you start
- drinking in dangerous situations
- neglecting your responsibilities
- having trouble in your relationships
- being able to drink more than you used to
- experiencing withdrawal
- trying to quit but being unable to
According to Per Wickstrom, the successful founder of Behavioral Rehabilitation Services, “The ongoing battle against drug and alcohol abuse is a fight that will not be won in treatment centers alone. If we wish to make a difference indeed, we must attack addiction where it begins.”
Increasing awareness is the first step to that goal.