Even if you think your alcohol consumption qualifies as reasonable, speaking to Dr. Richard Saitz of the Boston University School of Public Health might make you reexamine the way they drink. While studies showing the long-term health effects of binge drinking abound, most of us think we’re in the clear. But in reality, about 40 percent of American adults are actually drinking enough to compromise their health in one way or another, according to Saitz’s study, released Tuesday in the journal Substance Abuse.
In the study, which analyzed National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions data on the health and drinking habits of 34,653 American adults, Saitz and his team suggest that it’s time to start drawing two lines in the sand when monitoring our drinking habits: a weekly maximum and a daily one. The weekly line hovers at 14 drinks per week for men and seven for women. On a nightly basis, that comes out to four drinks for men and three for women. For some people, these limits may seem laughable, but exceeding them — a behavior termed “at-risk use” — could lead to serious health consequences.
“The majority of people who are drinking too much don’t have alcohol use disorder,” Saitz tells Inverse. “Many times, I’ll talk to patients about what risky drinking is and the reaction I get often is: Oh really? I didn’t know that.”
Exceeding those daily and weekly limits isn’t enough to constitute an alcohol use disorder, but it is enough to cause serious health effects, Saitz says, particularly in the short term. Regularly passing the weekly limit is, over time, linked to long-term health complications like the development of heart conditions. Exceeding the daily limit is linked to health issues that arise from being wasted — namely, getting injured. It may sound ridiculous, but Saitz says that on a population basis, people doing dumb things in a drunken state actually constitutes a public health issue.
“The effects of risky drinking are big on a population basis,” Saitz explains. “Any individual may do fine drinking large amounts on a Saturday night. But when you look across the population, drinking too much is a leading cause of injury, and injury is a leading cause of death in young people.”
With the risks nailed down, Saitz’s study took things one step further. The same way someone might wake up on a Sunday morning and wonder, “How did I get here?”, the study nailed down when in life people transition from risky drinking to non-risky drinking and how that might cause dangerous patterns to form.
Over the three-year study period, 15 percent of people — mostly teenagers — crossed the line from non-risky to risky drinking behavior. Teens make up such a big proportion of this newly risky-drinking group, says Saitz, because they approached the legal drinking age during that period, entering a glamorous world of alcohol access that pushed them over the edge.
Regardless of age, the moment in a drinker’s lifetime when habits go from non-risky to risky is crucial. If, at that point, someone is unaware of what constitutes “drinking too much,” it becomes a habit that’s hard to break, Saitz warns. His study showed that 73 percent of people who had established “risky drinking” patterns stayed that way over the next three years.
“They’ve fallen into a pattern,” Saitz says. “Maybe they haven’t seen a reason to change it, so it persists.”
These patterns can form for a number of reasons, but namely, he believes that it just comes down to the idea that most people really don’t see their alcohol consumption as an issue. Instead, Saitz suggests people should think about the amount they drink the same way they might monitor cholesterol or blood pressure. If people want to drink above or below that line, that’s totally fine. The important thing is to be aware of the amounts of alcohol that come with consequences — and let that knowledge guide future behavior.