Alcohol Use vs. Alcohol Abuse

By Gamal Hennessy

Reuters published a story this week about the surprising levels of binge drinking among older adults. A recent study found that while binging is often considered a problem among young adults it often goes unnoticed in other sectors of society. While it is clear that drinking is a basic part of our society, it is also clear that responsible indulgence is a practice that we can learn in nightlife and take with us into our later years.

Consumption Patterns

Before we can understand the benefits of responsible indulgence, we need to get an idea of what our consumption patterns are when it comes to alcohol. In 2001, the United States Department of Health and Human Services conducted a survey called the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) which included a set of questions on consumption of alcoholic beverages. This study is helpful in understanding how we drink.

The NHSDA established three levels of drinking frequency. Current use was defined as at least one drink in the past 30 days. Binge use was defined as five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once in the past 30 days. Heavy use was defined as five or more drinks on the same occasion at least five times in the past 30 days.

The NHSDA found that 48.3% of people aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol. This translates to an estimated 109 million people across the country. In addition 20.5% of people aged 12 or older participated in binge drinking in the same time period. Heavy drinking was reported by 5.7% of the population over the age of 12. Binge drinking was most prevalent among people age 18 to 25, with the peak rate occurring at age 21. Binge and heavy alcohol use rates decreased faster with increasing age than did rates current past month alcohol use.

But according to a more recent study, binge drinking is also prevalent among older Americans. Researchers have concluded that up to 23% percent of people between 50 and 64 binge drink and 14% of adults age 65 and older overindulge in alcohol. Anti-nightlife proponents might imagine that frat boys, B&T amateurs and other fanatics are alcohol’s main abusers, but it seems the AARP set has liquor issues of their own.

Risk and Reward

Cultural and scientific thought both accept and advocate the use of alcohol. Studies have been done to show the health benefits of moderate drinking. Because liquor reduces blood clotting, drinking can reduce the chances of heart attack or strokes. It can also increase levels of good (HDL) cholesterol. Alcohol is a social lubricant that can calm, relive inhibitions and bring people together. It is also a distinct component of human culture, religion and social systems. There are quite a few positives that come from liquor, so I’m not advocating the elimination of alcohol consumption by any stretch of the imagination.

But because the over consumption of liquor has inherent physical, social and economic effects, there are merits to avoiding alcohol abuse at any age. I’m not talking about alcoholism here, which is a topic unto itself. Alcohol abuse differs from full blown alcoholism in that it does not include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control, or physical dependence. Alcohol abuse is also less likely than alcoholism to include tolerance. But it can lead to detrimental effects including failure to fulfill personal responsibilities, drinking in situations that are physically dangerous, recurring alcohol-related legal or relationship problems. Even if you’re not addicted to alcohol in the technical sense, limiting the amount you drink can mean the difference between use and abuse.

Responsible Indulgence

While every person handles liquor differently, there are some guidelines available for responsible use. The DOH makes the conservative recommendation that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two. As a nightlife native you have a better understanding of your body and what it can handle, so you can use the DOH limit as a guideline rather than a rule. For instance, if you are going to have more than one drink when you go out (and realistically speaking it’s hard to go out and have just one) it helps if you pace yourself by having no more than one drink per hour and eating or drinking water while you drink, which can lessen the detrimental effects to your health and the people around you.

Binge drinking is not an activity reserved for teenagers who sneak into clubs. Binge drinking is not a product of age. You can be irresponsible with liquor at 18, 38, 58, and beyond. The underlying problem is that many people in the United States have a schizophrenic relationship with drinking in particular and pleasure in general. We’re not really comfortable with the concept of moderation. We either want nothing or everything. Many of us either abstain from alcohol or we get drunk out of our minds. Binge drinking is a by product of our culture as Americans and can be considered one of the negative impacts of liquor as an aspect of nightlife culture. Responsible indulgence gives us the ability to enjoy the benefits of liquor without succumbing to its negative effects.

Have fun.