Military Rank, Education Predict Which Veterans at Highest Risk for Alcoholism

Posted on February 17th, 2015
Posted in News

Status within the military, level of education and a tendency toward negative thinking help predict which military veterans will have problems with alcohol at the conclusion of active duty, a new study by researchers in Germany finds.

People enlisted in the military consume alcohol in larger amounts than the general U.S. population and also have a high rate of participation in a high-risk form of alcohol intake called binge drinking. While on active deployment, servicemen and servicewomen may have experiences that increase their likelihood of drinking at levels that significantly boost their risks for developing diagnosable alcohol problems. In a study published in November 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of German researchers evaluated the factors that heighten the odds that military personnel returning from active deployment will experience a substantial spike in their typical alcohol consumption.

Military Service and Problematic Drinking

Binge drinking is defined by the consumption of enough alcohol to reach a state of impairing intoxication in no more than two hours. Roughly one in five people enlisted in the military meets this definition at least four times a month, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. In environments where active combat takes place, more than one in four members of the military binge drinks at least once a week.

When practiced on a regular basis, binge drinking commonly constitutes a form of heavy drinking. Heavy drinkers repeatedly consume enough alcohol on a daily or weekly basis to notably increase their chances of developing alcoholism and/or diagnosable alcohol abuse at some point in the near or extended future. While excessive alcohol consumption produces a risk even when it only occurs once a month, people who drink heavily at least twice a week have a 50/50 lifetime chance of developing alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse. Roughly 20 percent of all people enrolled in the military qualify as heavy drinkers. Groups of personnel with especially high risks for such a designation include men in general and men between the ages of 18 and 25 in particular.

Potential Impact of Military Deployment

Deployment in an active combat zone is one of the known risk factors for the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that over-sensitizes the natural human reaction to high-stress situations and essentially leaves the “fight-or-flight” response locked in the “on” position. In turn, military personnel affected by diagnosed or undiagnosed PTSD have increased chances of consuming alcohol in risky ways and developing diagnosable alcohol problems. Unfortunately, PTSD related to an exposure to violence is particularly likely to lead to problematic drinking. Equally as unfortunately, problematic drinking in a person with post-traumatic stress disorder can substantially worsen the ailment’s effects.

Who Has the Highest Alcohol-Related Risks?

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Germany’s Technical University Dresden and Center for Psychiatry and Post-Traumatic Stress used a series of interviews conducted with 358 soldiers to examine the risk factors that make any given person more likely to substantially increase alcohol intake after returning from active deployment. The researchers conducted a baseline interview before the soldiers began their deployment; they conducted a second interview after the soldiers had been off active deployment for a year.

The researchers preliminarily concluded that 215 of the 358 study participants did not change their alcohol intake in the aftermath of their deployment. Seventy-one participants increased their alcohol intake, while 72 participants decreased their alcohol intake. When the researchers compared the soldiers who increased their consumption to the soldiers who didn’t, they concluded that those who held a lower status within the military, had a lower level of educational achievement and were less accepting of the experiences they underwent while deployed were more likely to drink heavily upon returning home. Additional factors that distinguished the soldiers who increased their alcohol intake included a higher rate of sleeping difficulties, a higher level of negative thinking (one of the core symptoms of PTSD) and lack of a fully developed support network.

The study’s authors identified several factors that contribute to a decrease in alcohol consumption following military deployment. These factors include experiencing little or no childhood neglect early in life and having relatively few indications of PTSD before beginning a period of active deployment. The authors believe that their findings make important contributions to the understanding of the reasons some military personnel embark on potentially dangerous increases in alcohol consumption after returning from deployment in an active duty zone. They also believe that their findings may help the military reduce the drinking-related risks for its post-deployment personnel.

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