Binge Drinking Increases the Risk for Alcohol Problems Later
The Risk of Alcohol’s Reward
Researchers at the University of Chicago found that when individuals report a high level of stimulation and reward connected to alcohol consumption, they’re more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
The findings were based on a double-blind, placebo-controlled study in which the team, led by Andrea King, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University, analyzed the experiences of 104 young adults that reported engaging in heavy social drinking. The researchers documented their drinking habits over an extended period of time.
Individuals who most strongly experienced the stimulant properties contained in alcohol during their 20s were those with the highest risk of developing alcohol-related problems by their 30s. Those who felt the effects of alcohol less positively were more likely to discontinue binge drinking as they grew older.
The researchers recruited self-reported binge drinkers, equating to those who consume at least four drinks on one occasion for women and five drinks per occasion for men, occurring between one and five times per week. The control group included light social drinkers.
In three sessions, the participants were given a placebo drink with only the smell of alcohol, a low dose of alcohol, or a high dose of alcohol. The researchers then conducted questionnaires, memory and performance tasks, and sampled the participants for levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Drinking alcohol raises the level of cortisol, and high and prolonged levels of cortisol are linked to cognitive impairment and memory loss, which can be seen as a person ages.
Effects of Heavy Drinking at an Earlier Age
In the early sessions while the participants were in their 20s, heavy drinkers were more likely to show a strong preference for alcohol and report higher levels of stimulating effects, as well as enjoying the alcohol and wanting more. These drinkers experienced fewer sedative effects and lower levels of cortisol were measured. The participants were regularly monitored for drinking-related behaviors and criteria for alcohol addiction.
Six years after the initial evaluation, the heavy drinkers (now in their 30s) fell into one of three groups of alcohol addiction symptoms: high, intermediate, and low. Light drinkers showed no signs of alcohol addiction and were not evaluated further.
The researchers found that those in the high alcohol addiction symptom group were most likely to report higher levels of stimulation and pleasure from alcohol consumption. Tolerance to the fatiguing effects of alcohol was not as predictive of addiction.
The researchers were able to document that at age 25 some drinkers found alcohol to be more of a positive experience. Later, the researchers were able to see how those who enjoyed alcohol more went on to experience alcohol-related problems.
Prevention and Intervention of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Dr. King and colleagues are now working to determine whether early intervention among drinkers with a positive response to alcohol may help reduce levels of addiction later in life. The participants will be followed into their 30s to examine if intervention techniques have an impact on drinking habits.
These findings offer important information that can be used by younger social drinkers. If a person finds that alcohol is particularly pleasurable, he or she would be wise to watch for signs that alcohol use is becoming problematic. Friends and family members can also play a role, helping one another to recognize that an individual is sensitive to the effects of alcohol consumption.