Binge drinking is a growing problem in the United States. In January 2012, the CDC released estimates that more than 38 million adults participate in binge drinking. Many do so as many as four times a month. While the largest group engaging in binge drinking is in the 18-to-24-age range, those over 65 who imbibe in excess were found to binge drink more frequently.
Binge drinkers run a greater risk of serious consequences than those who consume alcohol in limited amounts. Underage binge drinkers, for example, are twice as likely to continue binge drinking as adults and three times more likely to develop an alcohol-related disorder.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Definitions of binge drinking vary, but most describe the act of drinking a lot of drinks in a short period of time. One commonly used rule-of-thumb describes binge drinking as consuming at least five (for men) or four (for women) drinks in a two-hour period. A drink is classified as a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounces of liquor. Generally speaking, it is the amount that would raise the BAC to 0.08 or higher.
Why Do People Binge Drink?
Binge drinking occurs in every age group, though some groups are more likely to participate in binge drinking than others. College students, for example, are both very willing to engage in new experiences and highly susceptible to peer pressure. Arriving at college and being away from parental control for the first time can lead to many poor decisions, including binge drinking when socializing.
Individuals from all age groups turn to alcohol when struggling with acceptance, coping, and peer pressure. Likewise, daily sources of anxiety, such as pressure from work and relationship stress, can encourage individuals to binge drink. Major life transitions, traumatic experiences and feelings of purposelessness can drive individuals into unhealthy drinking patterns as well.
There are also studies that indicate family background and genetics play a role in increasing the likelihood of binge drinking.
Dangers of Binge Drinking
Any type of excessive alcohol consumption, even a one-night celebration, carries with it a multitude of dangers. Immediate consequences of binge drinking include injury, violence or even a fatal accident. The long-term risks of binge drinking are even less attractive and include chemical brain changes, increased risk for metabolic syndrome and addiction.
Brain Dangers – Adolescents vs. Adults
Binge drinking has many adverse effects on the human brain, regardless of age, but the brain of a teenager is still developing. As a result, the potential long-term risks for adolescents are greater than they are for an adult. Lifelong cognitive problems can result from even one episode of binge drinking. Scientific studies have determined that adolescent heavy drinkers had smaller frontal lobes and hippocampi, as well as poorer quality of white matter. These effects are often nonreversible.
Even short-term dangers must be considered. Coordination issues, memory loss, poor decision-making, attention deficits and decreased learning ability can have lasting consequences. Sadly, many of these can become long-term or even permanent if binge drinking continues.
Roughly half of those struggling with alcohol addiction have cognitive issues, but the good news is that memory and concentration have been shown to improve after addiction recovery. However, many diminished mental faculties, such as the abilities to work with spatial information, plan ahead, learn and retain information, may not completely return.
A metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that can put a person at high risk of diabetes and heart disease. Studies show that binge drinking greatly increases these risk factors. The main dangers are high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, impaired fasting glucose and hypertriglyceridemia.
Death From Binge Drinking
Binge drinking can easily get out of hand. Each drink hinders the decision-making process, a particularly dangerous outcome for those in a 15-to-24 age group. When individuals are urged to continue drinking by peers, the results often are deadly. Alcohol poisoning, aspiration from vomit, and other alcohol-related injuries claim the lives of roughly 5,000 college students each year. It is the third-largest cause of death for this age group.
Death can also be caused by poor choices made when intoxicated. Binge drinking can bring out strong emotions that can lead to confrontations or a suicide attempt.
Additional Risks of Binge Drinking
Even a single session of binge drinking can result in serious consequences. Impulse-control issues can result in unplanned pregnancy, contracting a sexually transmitted disease or permanent damage to an unborn child. Pregnant women link both fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and sudden infant death syndrome to alcohol usage.
Addiction to Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism
Although it is commonly assumed that those who indulge in binge drinking are alcoholics, this is not necessarily the case. Addiction to binge drinking is different than alcoholism. Binge drinkers do not typically experience the severe physical withdrawal syndromes associated with alcoholism. Instead, they experience an overwhelming psychological need to drink in excess. A binge drinker can often go days or even weeks between binges, whereas someone struggling with alcoholism cannot.
While there are studies that indicate binge drinking can progress into alcoholism, only a small fraction of college students who binge drink develop long-term problems with alcohol. Recent studies suggest that this variation is largely genetic.
In fact, the latest research on alcoholism suggests that genetics can account for roughly half of the risk of developing alcoholism. Given the risks, individuals with a family history of alcoholism are highly discouraged from taking part in binge drinking.
Even those who have not fallen victim to addiction can seek treatment when psychological or emotional issues have made it difficult to manage their drinking.
Recognizing the Red Flags of Binge Drinking That Lead to Alcoholism
It’s not too difficult to identify when a person’s binge drinking behavior has spiraled out of control. The following scenarios serve as major red flags indicating that it is time to seek treatment:
- Blacking out
- Inability to stop after just one or two drinks when binging wasn’t planned
- Obsessing about drinking
- Drinking daily, even if not always binging
- Drinking alone
- Gearing social life around alcohol
- Poor behavior when drunk
- Ending friendships with non-drinkers
- Consistently putting partying before studies or work
Where to Get Help
Sometimes a person can put a halt to binge drinking on their own by forming a plan, making a conscious effort to cut back on drinking or to stop altogether, and focusing on positive lifestyle activities. Joining a support group can also be helpful. However, if the binge drinking continues despite one’s best efforts to modify their behavior, then it is time to seek professional help.
The rehab treatment strategies used to treat alcoholism are equally effective for overcoming out-of-control binge drinking. At Elevate Addiction Services, we not only customize treatment plans for binge drinkers, we also provide individualized treatment plans based on each client’s unique needs.
Elevate also helps with interventions, an important resource for parents with college-age children. It is not uncommon for students to resist the idea that they have a binge-drinking problem until a professional acknowledges the issue.
Parents can also contact us if they’re unsure about whether or not the troubling signs they’re seeing – like slipping grades or reduced communication – are signs that intervention is necessary.
The bottom line is that yes, binge drinking can and does sometimes lead to alcoholism. It isn’t a given, but the risk is real. Because of the many dangers of binge drinking, avoidance is still the best option. Likewise, responsible drinking habits can prevent many of the short- and long-term consequences, some of which can be fatal.
The good news is that there is help for both binge drinking and alcohol dependency. The first step is recognizing the problem and then getting assistance.