WELLNESS
08/24/2017 09:24 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2017

The Way Americans Drink Alcohol Is Changing And Experts Are Worried

High-risk drinking is becoming a bigger problem.

Chrissy Teigen opened up earlier this week about struggling with drinking. While her description of her consumption didn’t necessarily meet the criteria of alcohol abuse, the celebrity admitted she was “drinking too much” and she’s now abstaining from booze for the time being.

Teigen is far from alone in her experience. And a recent report is shining a light on how this habit is only growing, especially among certain demographics, particularly women.

Research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry published earlier this month examined and compared two large studies where American adults self-reported their drinking behaviors. One study, conducted from 2001 to 2002, contained more than 40,000 survey responses while the second study of more than 35,000 responses, was conducted from 2012 to 2013. 

Overall, Americans who reported they drank at least once in a year-long period increased by 11 percent. High-risk drinking, meaning drinking four or more beverages per day at least once a week for women and five or more for men, increased by 30 percent. Alcohol use disorders, which is where individuals’ drinking interferes with their everyday lives and they find it difficult to stop, increased by almost 50 percent.

Women had some of the greatest increases in terms of population type. High-risk consumption increased by 60 percent among them and alcohol use disorder rose an alarming 84 percent. The authors also noted that adults ages 65 and older have seen a larger increase in alcohol consumption, with high-risk drinking rising by 65 percent and alcohol use disorders skyrocketing nearly 107 percent.

Take a look at a further breakdown below:

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What’s causing this trend ― and why it’s harmful

So what gives? The JAMA Psychiatry study didn’t examine why all of this is occurring but the authors have some theories.

For starters, the culture surrounding alcohol has dramatically shifted, particularly for women. While it used to be more taboo for women to imbibe freely, it’s now more widely encouraged in society, according to George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which was affiliated with the study.

“I think it’s more acceptable for women to be drinking in general,” Koob told HuffPost. “The gap between women and men drinking has decreased. It used to be quite large.”

Previous research published in 2016 shows that as more women joined the workforce, their alcohol consumption rates also increased as they became part of the after-work drinking culture. Drops in the price of alcohol and targeted marketing toward women also could be factors.

Cultural changes could have lead to higher incidents of binge drinking, Koob said. That could be especially dangerous for women’s health which is what alarms the researchers the most.

Koob says he isn’t concerned about the increase in women’s alcohol consumption from a cultural standpoint. However, women are particularly vulnerable to the physiological effects of alcohol ― and that concerns researchers if they’re drinking more, he said.

Women’s blood alcohol content tends to be higher if they’re drinking the same amount as men, thanks to lower body weights and body water distribution, according to Koob. He also points out that women progress to liver disease more quickly if they’re misusing alcohol.

Stress in general might also be an explanation for why drinking in general is on the rise. For women, this could be due to pressures men still don’t typically face, like having to balance work and a family life, the authors said in the study. However, there isn’t any hard data that supports that hypothesis, Koob said.

And, truthfully, anxiety could be a factor regardless of gender. This could particularly be true among minorities, who had higher rates of risky drinking behaviors than whites. Income and educational disparities, along with discrimination may all contribute to the gap, according to the authors.

There are a few limitations with the study: The researchers didn’t run clinical tests for substance use disorders or monitor the adults’ drinking habits. Instead, the results rely on self-reporting rather than observations. The surveys also may have missed people from populations who may not have responded, like those who may be homeless or incarcerated.

What can be done to ease the rise in drinking

The results of the study highlight an important need to address both the biological and societal factors that might influence drinking habits. That means greater awareness about how alcohol affects a person personally to addressing the drinking culture, particularly among young people when binge drinking habits start, Koob said.

“Overall, extreme binge drinking is worrying us,” Koob said. “People really need to learn about alcohol. It’s a social lubricant. It’s used widely in our society. But excessive drinking can cause problems.”

People really need to learn about alcohol. It’s a social lubricant. It’s used widely in our society. But excessive drinking can cause problems.

Combating the problem also includes physicians educating the public on the dangers of excessive drinking and encouraging people to talk to their loved ones about any family history of alcoholism. Researchers hope the results also push both doctors and patients to have an open conversation about excessive alcohol consumption and treatment.

Data suggests there’s large stigma when it comes to substance abuse. The study authors note that the more that health care providers talk to their clients about drinking in a nonjudgmental way, the easier it will be to fight the problem.

The effects of too much drinking are too stark to miss: Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of cancers, mental health disorders, heart disease, stroke and more

“The simple version of this is that everything should be done in moderation,” Koob said. “Enjoy alcohol if you choose to drink but more is not better in this case.”

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