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Most Teen Drinkers Experience Blackouts, Study Finds

A new study led by a professor at UC San Diego has found that almost all teenage alcohol drinkers between the ages of 15 and 19 experience at least one alcohol-related blackout (ARB).Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in Bristol, England, distinguished professor of psychiatry Marc A. Schuckit evaluated the presence of ARBs among 1,402 drinking adolescents aged 15, 16, 18 and 19. The results of the study revealed that only 5.1 percent of teen drinkers did not experience a blackout between the ages of 15 and 19.

Risks of Alcohol-Related Blackouts

ARBs happen when a person is extremely intoxicated, usually with a blood-alcohol concentration that is well above the legal limit. Alcohol impairs the brain’s ability to form long-term memories, so people who drink large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time may have partial amnesia and be unable to remember everything that happened during their drinking episodes.

Drinking that is heavy enough to result in a blackout is likely to be accompanied by various risky behaviors. Judgment is so impaired by such large quantities of alcohol that individuals are much more likely have unprotected sex, get into fights, drive drunk, suffer alcohol-related car accidents and engage in other highly risky activities. Severe intoxication also makes people more vulnerable to physical or sexual assault.

Blackouts can add a new level of distress and risk to such situations. For example, people who experience voluntary sexual activity or sexual assault that they do not fully remember may not realize they are at risk for pregnancy or STDs or be able to identify the person who assaulted them.

Most Teens Report Increasing Blackouts With Age

Schuckit and his research team found that the percentage of teenagers experiencing ARBs rose significantly from age 15 to 19. The study found that 30 percent of the 1,402 teen drinkers suffered at least one blackout at age 15, but that 74 percent reported a blackout at age 19. Furthermore, 20.5 percent of the teens in the study reported experiencing blackouts at each of the four time points: ages 15, 16, 18 and 19.

The researchers divided their results into four classes. Class 1 consisted of those teens who had never experienced a blackout, Class 2 consisted of those teens whose blackouts increased rapidly as they got older, Class 3 consisted of teens whose blackouts increased more gradually as they got older and Class 4 indicated teenagers who experienced at least one blackout at all four time points of the study.

A large majority of teens in the study showed increasing blackouts over the course of the four time points, with 29.5 percent falling into Class 2 and 44.9 percent falling into Class 3. An additional 20.5 percent of the teens in the study fell into Class 4, while only 5.1 percent of teens reported no history of ARBs and fell into Class 1.

Risk Factors for Frequent Blackouts

Smokers were more likely to fall into Class 4, as were those who drank larger quantities of alcohol, had impulsive characteristics and had more peers who engaged in substance use. Females were also more likely to fall into Class 4, possibly because it takes less alcohol, on average, for females to become intoxicated enough to experience blackouts.07

Posted on March 7th, 2015

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