Study Identifies Teens at Highest Risk for Alcohol Blackouts

Posted on May 19th, 2015
Posted in Teens

Certain groups of teenage drinkers have heightened chances of drinking rapidly enough and heavily enough to experience alcohol-related blackouts, according to new findings from a team of British and American researchers.

Alcohol blackouts are episodes of short-term amnesia associated with the excessive and frequently rapid intake of liquor or other alcoholic beverages. Many of the people who experience these episodes meet the criteria for diagnosing alcohol dependence (alcoholism) and/or non-addicted alcohol abuse. In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from two American universities and one British university looked at the common patterns of alcohol-related blackout that appear in teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 and 19. The researchers also looked at the factors that help predict blackouts in any given person in this age range.

Alcohol-Related Blackouts

During an alcohol blackout, a drinker loses the ability to later recall the things that he or she did while intoxicated. However, he or she does not typically lose the ability to remember what happened before consuming enough alcohol to enter a blackout state. Scientists commonly refer to this kind of amnesia as anterograde amnesia (whether or not it occurs in the context of a blackout episode). Most people black out after drinking unusually heavily and/or unusually quickly. Separate from any amnesia-related issues, regular heavy drinking clearly increases the odds that any given person will eventually develop alcohol use disorder (the joint diagnosis for both alcoholism and alcohol abuse). Separate from any amnesia-related issues, rapid alcohol consumption is a key factor in binge drinking, a practice that results in legal drunkenness in two hours or less. Binge drinkers have steeply increased chances of experiencing accidents, intentional assaults and a wide array of other alcohol-related harms.

Not all people who drink heavily and rapidly will experience an alcohol-related blackout. Still, the best immediate predictor of an oncoming episode is a blood-alcohol content that rises quickly in a brief span of time. Researchers once thought that virtually all blackout episodes occur among people affected by alcoholism. However, they now know that such episodes often occur among non-addicted drinkers who may or may not meet the terms used to diagnose alcohol abuse.

Teens, Alcohol and Drunkenness

The National Institute on Drug Abuse tracks U.S. rates of teen alcohol use and teen drunkenness with the help of an annual, nationwide survey project called Monitoring the Future. The latest findings from this survey, covering the 2014 calendar year, indicate that 37.4 percent of all of the nation’s high school seniors consume alcohol in the typical month; in addition, about 23.5 percent of high school seniors drink to the point of drunkenness in the typical month. Tenth graders in the U.S. have a monthly drinking rate of 23.5 percent and a monthly drunkenness rate of just over 11 percent. U.S. eighth graders have a monthly drinking rate of 9 percent and a monthly drunkenness rate of just under 3 percent.

Which Teens Have the Highest Blackout Risks?

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol and America’s Virginia Commonwealth University and University of California, San Diego used information gathered from 1,402 teen participants in a long-term British project to determine how often teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 experience alcohol-related blackouts. The researchers used information from the same group of alcohol-consuming adolescents to determine the factors that predict future exposure to such blackouts.

The researchers concluded that, among the study participants, the lowest rate of exposure to alcohol-related blackouts (30 percent) occurred in 15-year-olds; conversely, the highest rate (74 percent) occurred in 19-year-olds. Just 5 percent of the participants never experienced a blackout at any point between the ages of 15 and 19. Almost a third of the participants (29.5 percent) experienced rapidly rising exposure to blackouts as they grew older, while 44.9 percent experienced a more gradual increase in their blackout exposure. A fourth group of participants (comprising 20.5 percent of the whole) did not experience a change in their blackout risks as they grew older.

The researchers identified several factors that increase the risks for blackouts among teenage drinkers. These factors include having a generally high level of alcohol intake, being female, smoking cigarettes, believing that one’s peers are significantly involved in substance use and having behavioral issues linked with such things breaking rules, acting impulsively or committing theft or other crimes.

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