A new study on alcoholism shows that although 30 percent of Americans drink more than healthy guidelines recommend, only 10.2 percent of those heavy drinkers actually qualify as alcoholics. The study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and was published in the Nov. 20 journal Preventing Chronic Disease. According to the study, nine out of 10 adults who drink too much do not meet the criteria for alcohol dependence or alcoholism. Excessive consumption includes binge drinking.
The CDC defines excessive alcohol consumption as eight or more drinks per week for a woman, 15 or more drinks per week for a man. A binge is four or more drinks on one occasion for women, five or more for men. The CDC says that 30 percent of Americans go over those healthy guidelines and, although they may not be not alcoholics, they still need to worry about serious health risks. The survey analyzed data obtained from 138,100 U.S. adults aged 18 or over who had participated in the 2009, 2010 or 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Dr. Robert Brewer, co-author of the study and the leader for the CDC’s alcohol program, said that some people who drink too much are “self-medicating,” and that most people who imbibe excessively are binge drinkers. Binge drinking is considered a risk factor for developing alcoholism, and 90 percent of the excessive drinkers in the study reported at least one binge drinking session in the past 30 days. Those reporting binge drinking more than five times in the previous month were more likely to be alcohol dependent. Approximately one-third of people reporting more than 10 binge drinking sessions qualified as alcoholic.
A list of seven criteria is used to evaluate alcohol dependence: withdrawal, tolerance, impaired control (meaning the inability to stop drinking once started), continued alcohol use despite problems, unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut down on drinking, neglect of activities and having a large portion of life revolving around alcohol-related activity. Only one in 10 people involved in the study fit three or more of the criteria that indicates alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder defines alcoholism as taking alcohol in larger amounts than intended over a longer period, with recurrent use resulting in failures to fulfill major obligations.
Drinking too much had a reported economic cost of $223.5 billion in 2006, mostly linked to binge drinking, and leading to HIV infections, violence, unintended pregnancies and eventual alcoholism. Excessive drinking is considered to be the main factor that leads to 88,000 deaths a year, typically due to liver disease, heart disease and breast cancer, or from direct results of drinking such as automobile accidents, violence and alcohol poisoning.
Brewer says that drinking too much, even if a person is not alcohol dependent, is bad, period. Although most heavy drinkers are not candidates for special treatment programs, they can be helped in other ways. He says that society sends confusing messages about drinking behavior, leading people to think that getting drunk is just part of having a good time.
Dr. Scott Krakower, Zucker Hill Hospital assistant unit chief of psychiatry, says that many people who drink regularly underestimate how much alcohol they actually consume, leading to the possibility of risky situations. He encourages screening and education to help families understand more about alcoholism and excessive drinking, and how they can detect problems early on and prevent them from worsening.
By Beth A. Balen