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Binge Drinking Dangerous on Many Levels

Affects Health, Brain and Emotional Well-Being

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Updated June 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Binge Drinking Dangers

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Binge drinking can be dangerous on many different levels, especially for young binge drinkers, possibly affecting their health, brain and emotional well-being.

Binge drinking can increase risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders. It can affect your ability to plan, pay attention, make decisions, process emotions and control impulses. It also increases your risk of accident, injury and becoming the victim of violence.

What Exactly Is Binge Drinking?

When many people hear the term "binge" associated with drinking, they think of someone drinking continually for several days without eating and getting very little sleep. That's not binge drinking, that's "going on a bender."

Binge drinking is having five or more drinks (four for females) during a single drinking session. That's it. That level of drinking is considered binge drinking and considered an increase risk for all the dangers found listed below.

Binge drinking is drinking a six pack. It's drinking one bottle of wine.

Metabolic Syndrome Risks

In recent years there have been many research studies about the adverse effects of binge drinking, and many of them have focused on young people - including adolescents and young adults. Even for younger drinkers, binge drinking can be a threat to their metabolic health.

One study found that heavy drinking by young adults and teens can lead to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of metabolic risk factors that increases the chances of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Researchers found that young people who drink moderately and those who wait until later in life to begin drinking, have much less risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and stroke.

Attention and Memory Problems

Researchers have also found that young drinkers who drink only once or twice a week can develop problems with attention and memory. When given a visual working memory task, binge drinkers struggled more than those students who were not drinkers or were very light drinkers.

Binge drinkers had trouble distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information, were less efficient in completing the tasks, required greater attentional processing and had problems with the tasks even when they completed the tasks, compared with nondrinkers.

Even those young binge drinkers who exhibited no signs of chronic drinking or alcohol dependence displayed problems with attention and working memory processing.

Verbal Learning Skills Affected

Not only are attention and memory affected, binge drinkers also have displayed problems with verbal learning skills. For students - high school and college - this can hamper their chances of achieving academic success.

Studies have found that although visual learning ability was not significantly affected, binge drinkers had a lower ability to learn new verbal information. The effect was the same for both male and female binge drinkers.

Decision Making Impaired

Research at the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center has found that binge drinking at a young age, when the brain is still developing, can have a long-lasting effect on psychological development.

Their study of 18- to 22-year-old binge drinkers found that the young drinkers exhibited the same poor decision-making skills that are found in chronic alcoholics. But those decision-making problems were only evident in those students who started drinking very early in life.

Those who waited until they were 21 to begin drinking did not exhibit the same decision-making problems. The earlier the students started drinking, the more problems they had making good decisions.

Binge Drinking Changes the Brain

Using high-resolution images of the brain, one researcher has discovered that binge drinking physically makes changes to the brain - thinning the pre-frontal cortex. The more drinks a person has, the more the cortex is thinned.

That is important because the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with paying attention, planning, making decision, processing emotions and controlling impulses that lead to irrational behavior.

Increase Risk of Violence, Injury

It probably goes without saying that binge drinkers have an increased risk for injuries and violence, but there are several research studies that document the link. One study of 8,736 E.R. visits found that it wasn't the chronic, heavy-drinking alcoholics who experienced the most injuries, it was the light to moderate drinkers who sometimes drank heavily who had the most injuries.

The risk of injury increased for all types of drinkers, but the risk was the highest for binge drinkers.

Another study of 4,000 binge drinkers found that they do become more aggressive and are more likely to get into fights. Remarkably, the study found that adolescents who binge drink, but who do not get into fights, are much more likely to become the victims of violence compared with those who do not binge drink.

Avoid the Risks

The good news about all these risks associated with binge drinking is that they are all completely avoidable. They can be avoided by not binge drinking, especially when you are underage for drinking legally. The longer you put off drinking, the less likely you will experience problems.

If you do drink, experts recommend that you slow down, don't have as many drinks or don't drink them quickly. If you drink, make sure you consume less than four standard drinks in any one drinking session.

Sources:

Crego, A. et al. "Binge Drinking Affects Attentional and Visual Working Memory Processing in Young University Students." Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Published Online: 10 Aug 2009.
Gmel G., et al., "Alcohol-attributable injuries in admissions to a Swiss emergency room--an analysis of the link between volume of drinking, drinking patterns and pre-attendance drinking" Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research January 2005.
Goudriaan, A. E., et. al. "Decision Making and Binge Drinking: A Longitudinal Study" Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research June 2007.
Fan, AZ, et al. "Association of Lifetime Alcohol Drinking Trajectories with Cardiometabolic Risk" Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. January 2008.
McQueeny, T. "Possible Brain Damage in Young Adult Binge-Drinkers. Presented at the 34th annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism. June 2011.
Shepherd, J.P., et al, "Relations between alcohol, violence and victimization in adolescence." Journal of Adolescence. August 2006.

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