Binge Drinking: A Rite of Passage That's All Wrong

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 25, 2000 -- In the process of giving new meaning to the term "party animal," a Duke researcher has come up with some sobering news for thousands of students heading off to college where binge drinking is an all too common activity. A study done on binge-drinking rats may help prove someday that such drinking among adolescent humans not only may be harmful to them while they're young, but also remain harmful to them as adults.

The study, in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research,shows evidence that binge drinking affects the brain's response to alcohol later in life, and adolescents are especially vulnerable to the behavior because their brains are still developing, the researchers suggest.

To explore the effects of binge drinking, study author Aaron White, PhD, compared rats that were repeatedly exposed in a "binge pattern" to large amounts of alcohol in adolescence to those who were not. When all the rats were adults, their learning skills were tested in a classic maze. The two groups of rats responded similarly when sober, but while under the influence of alcohol, the adolescent binge drinkers had significantly larger memory impairments than those who were not given alcohol during adolescence.

"There's more to learn about humans, but the findings are still a cause for concern," says White, a psychiatric researcher at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Binge drinking is defined as five drinks in one sitting for men, and four for women. A recent study done by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that 44% of 14,000 students polled described drinking habits at one time that fit the description of binge drinking. The end result of all that drinking is often more than just a mere hangover.

"Binge drinkers are much more likely to miss classes, experience injuries, and damage property," says Mark Goldman, PhD, director of the alcohol and substance abuse research institute at the University of South Florida. "Because it's also strongly linked with car crashes, binge drinking accounts for 60 deaths a year."

Goldman, who's also the chairman of the college drinking subcommittee for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says the heaviest drinking usually occurs during the first two years of college. "It's a lot like getting into a car for the first time and driving on an interstate, but despite how much they drink, it's all illegal and most kids just do it to keep pace with an old myth," he suggests.

Many colleges now offer behavioral intervention programs, which have been shown to decrease drinking significantly.

Penn State offers one such program at its main campus in University Park, Pa. "The idea is to give students a tool to monitor and modify their behavior," says Nathan Thomas, MA, supervisor of the alcohol intervention program. "First we train peer counselors to educate students about the risks and consequences of binge drinking, then we help them develop an action plan to reduce their intake." Thomas tells WebMD that misperceptions about alcohol are rampant.

To help educate teens, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism distributes the following information to college campuses nationwide:

  • Alcohol lowers inhibitions, but also reduces sexual performance.
  • Drinking impairs judgement, increasing the likelihood of unprotected sex.
  • It takes three hours to eliminate two alcoholic drinks, even with coffee or a cold shower.
  • Twelve ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of liquor have the same amount of alcohol.
  • Women process alcohol differently, so they shouldn't try to keep pace with men.
  • One-half of all fatal car crashes among 18- to 24-year-olds involve alcohol.
  • One-third of all seriously injured 18- to 24-year-olds are intoxicated.
  • Postponing drinking lowers your lifetime chance of alcohol-related problems.