The Hidden Costs of Social Drinking

Posted on February 11th, 2016
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Everyone wants to be sociable, to be seen as easy to get along with and be around, and to fit in. Unfortunately, in today’s society, that all too often means drinking alcoholic beverages — and drinking as much as peers do. Though it has become the norm and not the exception, social drinking has hidden costs, not the least of which is that it can lead to addiction.

Do you know how much you can safely drink without becoming intoxicated? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the guidelines are no more than three alcoholic drinks a day or seven drinks a week for women and no more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks a week for men. Considering that many men and women at parties, bars, and backyard or recreational gatherings consume much more than that, safe drinking hardly seems to be considered in social settings.

Binge Drinking: Too Much, Too Soon

Think back to the last time you were at a social function and tipped back too many beers or downed one too many cocktails. If within two hours you consumed four drinks (for a woman) or five drinks (for a man), your blood alcohol content likely was at a level of at least 0.08. This pattern of drinking is called binge drinking. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines binge drinking as having five or more drinks on a single occasion on each of five or more days within the past month.

Just how many Americans engage in binge drinking? A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing national survey findings, said that one in six U.S. adults engage in binge drinking four times a month, and each binge involves the consumption of about eight alcoholic drinks. Other notable details include:

  • About 92% of adults in the U.S. who say they drink excessively said they engaged in binge drinking in the past month.
  • Binge drinking prevalence in men is twice that of women.
  • About 90% of the booze consumed by those under the age of 21 in the U.S. happens during binge drinking.

The Harm of Social Drinking

What harm does too much social drinking do? The costs of binge drinking can be far-reaching and enormous. These include physical risks and dangers, as well as costs to the individual and to society. Health risks associated with binge drinking include:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Liver disease
  • Sexually-transmitted diseases
  • Unintentional injuries through accidents such as car crashes, burning, drowning and falls
  • Intentional injuries through assaults, firearm injuries, domestic violence
  • High blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Neurological damage
  • Complications with diabetes or poorly controlled diabetes
  • Babies born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
  • Sexual functioning difficulties

The toll goes beyond the physical. Societal costs of binge drinking in 2006 amounted to $223.5 billion in the U.S. due to lost productivity, health care, crime and other losses.

How Alcohol Damages the Brain

The National Institutes of Health says that excessive alcohol consumption can result in damage to the brain’s frontal cortex, as well as areas involved in executive functioning. The cerebral cortex governs the ability to think, plan and behave intelligently. Damage to this region of the brain can result in impairment in problem solving, memory and learning. Motor coordination suffers from the effects of binge drinking that affect the cerebellum. Memory and emotion problems occur as a result of alcohol’s effect on the limbic system.

There’s also evidence that excessive alcohol consumption shrinks the brain’s gray matter and disturbs the tissue. This can happen during even a single episode of heavy drinking, but it’s markedly more likely with repeated binge drinking. Neurotransmitters are thrown off balance, resulting in drowsiness and triggering changes in behavior and mood, depression, memory loss, and agitation.

Long-Term Risk of Addiction

Of course, the longer a person continues to drink excessively, the more likely they are to become dependent upon or addicted to alcohol. For many a social drinker, the transition from being social and having fun to a non-stop drinker occurs seemingly without warning.

The first step to curbing excessive drinking is to monitor how much you drink. Be sure to consume no more than the guidelines for daily and weekly use that the experts recommend. If you notice or suspect that you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol, seek help because treatment can make a lifesaving difference.

By Suzanne Kane

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