New “Rethinking Drinking” Program Hopes to Prevent Alcoholism Early On

Although not everyone who drinks will become an alcoholic, it is estimated that 30 percent of people 18 and older drink at levels that will increase their risk of alcoholism. In an effort to help these people identify their likelihood for alcoholism before their drinking becomes problematic, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has initiated a preventative program called Rethinking Drinking.

In addition to a 16-page booklet for the public and a 34-page booklet for clinicians, the program also offers an interactive website for drinkers, complete with quizzes and calculators. This risk-reduction program has a great mission: To identify and treat risky drinking behaviors before anything bad happens.

Dr. Mark Willenbring, co-founder of the program, said that the project is “patterned on the risk-reduction concept used to prevent other chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes…The idea is early identification of risky drinking patterns and early intervention instead of waiting until the person is chronically ill.”

Willenbring, who directs the NIAAA’s Division of Treatment and Recovery Research, says that most people who are at risk of becoming abusers can cut down on their intake and reduce their risk. For those who already abuse alcohol, the program can help them acknowledge their problem and seek treatment earlier.

Rethinking Drinking also offers these helpful guidelines for knowing how much is too much to drink. They define low-risk drinking for men as having no more than 4 drinks on any day and no more than 14 drinks a week; for women, the limit is 3 drinks on any day and no more than 7 drinks a week. Any more than this is considered risky or heavy drinking. But these limits don’t work for everyone. Even moderate levels of drinking (up to two drinks per day for men and one for women) can be too much for some people.

The program also provides nine ways to cut down on drinking, including how to pace yourself and keep track of how much you are drinking. Willenbring listed five early symptoms of those who are already abusing alcohol or are at risk of becoming dependent, including repeatedly drinking more than self-set limits, having a persistent desire to quit or cut down, drinking and driving, spending too much time drinking, and having hangovers or a sleep disorder.

Just as it’s beneficial to treat diseases like cancer at an early stage, if symptoms of alcohol dependence are recognized and treated early on, many problems related to alcohol can be avoided.

Posted on May 14th, 2009

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