Of adults in the United States who drink alcohol, 40 percent are consuming so much that it could have negative health effects. Publishing their research in the Journal of Substance Use, health experts at the Boston University Scool of Public Health set out to find why some people drink to an extent where they may see associated health risks.
The biggest driving factor? Age.
Scientists looked at data collected from interviews of more than 34,000 US adults aged 18 and up for the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions in 2001-2002 and again in 2004-2005. Researchers then compared that data with the drinking habits of men and women over a 1-month period. For men, more than 14 drinks a week or more than four on a single occasion was seen as “too much”, while for women, it was seven drinks a week or more than three on a single occasion.
More than a quarter of people reported at-risk drinking habits at the time of the first study, while 73 percent reported so at the time of the second, mainly because of the drinking age in the US. Those who were under the legal drinking age of 21 at the time of their first drink, drank considerably less than they did two years later. Men, people with alcohol use disorder, and those who use tobacco or drugs were also more likely to start drinking more than deemed healthy. Researchers estimate that “millions of adults in the US transition to and from at-risk alcohol use over a relatively short time.”
Factors that make a person less likely to drink an at-risk amount include those who are Black and/or Hispanic, those who received alcohol treatment, had children, experienced stressful life events, or became unemployed between the two rounds.
"These findings suggest that not only do many people who drink, drink amounts associated with health consequences, but that without intervention they are likely to continue to do so," said lead author Richard Saitz in a statement. "Screening or self-assessments, and counseling, feedback, or public health messaging have roles in interrupting these patterns. The predictors we identified may help target those efforts."
Transition to at-risk drinking behavior is different than risk factors, and understanding how people move between low- and high-risk drinking habits can help inform treatment options.
“Knowing the magnitude of change, and risk and protective factors is essential for designing interventions for this major risk factor for chronic disease and a leading preventable cause of death,” wrote the authors.
The limitations of the study include those inherent to the accuracy of self-reporting, such as people intentionally or accidentally lying, as well as generalizing a person’s overall drinking habit by looking at just one month’s time, particularly as there are certain months and times of the year more known for boozing.