Demystifying Psychiatry

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Excessive Drinking Among High School Seniors

5% of high school seniors admit consuming 15 or more drinks in a row.

Binge drinking among high school seniors has decreased over the last decade. Despite this encouraging trend, extreme binge drinking has not declined in this age group, and the amount of drinks consumed during a heavy binge is staggering. This information comes from a recent report published in JAMA-Pediatrics by Megan Patrick and colleagues. Their research utilized data from questionnaires completed by over 16,000 high school seniors from 2005 through 2011.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming 5 or more average-sized beers (or equivalent amounts of wine or hard alcohol) in a relatively short period of time (typically over several hours). About 20% of high school seniors completing the study survey indicated that they had engaged in binge drinking during the prior two weeks. Although some people may be surprised by this high percentage, what is really troubling is that over 10% of high school seniors indicated that they had 10 or more drinks during a recent binge. Even more shocking is that over 5% said they consumed 15 or more drinks.

Two or three drinks can have substantial effects on a person’s ability to function. Ten to 15 drinks can lead to blood alcohol levels that are dangerous and possibly lethal, particularly in combination with other sedating drugs. This is especially true for women. The same amount of alcohol leads to higher blood levels in women than men, even in women and men who are the same weight.

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Not surprisingly, males are more apt to participate in heavy binges than females. About 15% of male high school seniors compared to 5% of female students reported binging with 10 or more drinks, and about 8% of males and 2% of females binged with 15 or more drinks. It is hard to believe that in the last 2 weeks about one of every ten high school seniors has downed 10 or more drinks in a short period of time. High school seniors usually have driver’s licenses, and even small amounts of alcohol can have major effects on a young driver's abilities. A high school student who binges and drives is a danger to himself and others. A car can be a lethal weapon.

Heavy binge drinking among high school seniors is more common in the Midwest and in rural areas, and high school students who smoke cigarettes or marijuana are more prone to heavy binges. Not surprisingly, students with friends who drink heavily are more likely to drink heavily. Also, students who spend more evenings during the week with their friends are more likely to binge drink.

The younger a person is when he or she starts to drink, the greater their risk for developing alcoholism. Genes play a role, but environment also has an effect in who develops alcoholism. As we have written in earlier posts, alcohol is our country’s most harmful recreational drug from a public health standpoint and is associated with considerable disability and death.

Although it is essential to develop better treatments for alcoholism, a potentially far more effective strategy is to prevent the development of this disorder. Educational programs aimed at young people have the potential to curb problem drinking before it starts.

This column was written by Eugene Rubin MD, PhD and Charles Zorumski MD

Eugene Rubin, M.D., Ph.D., is Professor and Vice-Chair for Education in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis - School of Medicine.

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