About 40 Percent of Americans Drink Too Much, Study Says

America’s infatuation with alcohol is no secret, but new research shows worrying trends in hard drinking.

In a study of more than 34,000 adults, researchers found that 40 percent of American adults consume excessive amounts of alcohol and continue to do so, despite the high risk of suffering health consequences. The findings mark an almost 10 percent increase from 2014 data that revealed that one in three adults drank heavily. 

Researchers examined results of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions from 2001 to 2002 and 2004 to 2005. More than 70 percent of those who drank excessively in the first sample continued the pattern when surveyed two to four years later, and 15 percent of those who didn’t drink irresponsibly in the first sample said they adopted risky drinking behaviors in the second sample.

The most significant predictor of excessive alcohol consumption was youth. Participants who were under 21 in the first sample were much more likely to drink heavily when surveyed a second time. Other predictors included being white, male and unmarried, whereas elderly, female and nonwhite respondents were least likely to excessively drink.

“Public health and clinical messages need repeating, particularly in young adulthood,” said lead author Richard Saitz said in a statement. “Once is not enough.”

The study defined excessive alcohol consumption as more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than seven drinks per week for women.

GettyImages-972628166 Discarded drinks sit on a tray at a Brooklyn bar, in New York, in June. A new study claims that 40 percent of Americans drink excessively, results that could portend an increase in alcohol-related poor health outcomes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A 2017 study found Americans are drinking more alcohol now than ever—more than 70 percent of all adults—and as a result, more people qualify for alcohol-use disorder, the diagnostic term for alcoholism, and high-risk drinking behaviors (four or more drinks per occasion for women, five or more for men). The study's authors said their findings constitute a “public health crisis” that will likely cause a surge in major health problems. 

While intoxication is linked to damage to physical property, bodily harm and a high risk of driving under the influence, the biochemical compound in alcohol is harmful on its own. A paper in the journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews said the compound ethanol can damage liver cells, poisoning the organ and eventually causing cirrhosis, researchers said in an Alcohol Research paper. The International Agency for Research on Cancer declared ethanol to be carcinogenic in 2008, warning that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of cancers in the mouth, liver and breast, among others. 

Though one in eight Americans fits alcoholic criteria, heavy drinkers are a separate group susceptible to addiction and negative health effects but who still possess some level of control over their consumption. How high-risk drinkers spread out the seven to 14 drinks per week matters, clinical psychologist Joseph Nowinski told Harvard Health. Drinking four or more drinks on one occasion is concurrent with excessive drinking, but one drink per day has a much more minor health impact.

“There are many people in the almost-alcoholic zone who are having alcohol-related problems with their health, their relationships and social lives and even their work, but who don’t connect the dots between these problems and their drinking,” Nowinski said.

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