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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Study Finds Tens of Millions Of Americans Drink Alcohol at Dangerously High Levels

A man sits at kitchen counter, forlorn, holding his head in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other

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Nearly 32 million adults in the United States (13 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older) consumed more than twice the number of drinks considered binge drinking on at least one occasion, according to a 2013 survey that asked about past-year drinking. This higher level of drinking is associated with increased health and safety risks. A report of the findings is online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study was conducted by researchers at NIAAA.

“This important study reveals that a large number of people in the United States drink at very high levels and underscores the dangers associated with such ‘extreme’ binge drinking,” said NIAAA director Dr. George Koob. “Of the nearly 90,000 people who die from alcohol each year, more than half, or 50,000, die from injuries and overdoses associated with high blood alcohol levels.”

Binge drinking, defined as having four or more drinks on an occasion for women, or five or more drinks on an occasion for men, can produce blood alcohol levels greater than 0.08 percent, which is the legal limit for driving in the United States. Reaching this level is well known to increase the risk of harms to the drinker and others. However, evidence suggests that many people drink far beyond four or five drinks per occasion, defined as extreme binge drinking. 

Extreme binge drinking was particularly common among study participants who used other drugs. This is a concern because combining alcohol with other drugs can increase the risk of injuries and overdose deaths.

“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 Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the NIAAA director. “The risk increases further if other sedative drugs, particularly opioids or benzodiazepines, are added to the mix.”

The researchers noted that their findings highlight the need to identify interventions to reduce extreme binge drinking and its negative consequences. Additional research is needed to determine how questions about peak alcohol consumption levels can be valuable in screening for alcohol misuse, as well as in assessing gender-specific risk factors and harms for drinking at extreme levels.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Associate Editor: Carla Garnett
Carla.Garnett@nih.gov

Staff Writers:

Eric Bock
Eric.Bock@nih.gov

Dana Talesnik
Dana.Talesnik@nih.gov

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