Study helps identify college drinkers who might continue excessive drinking as adults

March 24, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio - College students who are problem drinkers using alcohol to cope with personal problems and boost self-confidence are more likely to continue excessive drinking into adulthood, a recent study suggests.

The Ohio State University survey results suggest that adults who are still high-risk drinkers by age 34 may have inadvertently used alcohol to blunt the social and cognitive development that typically occurs during college, including the ability to handle alcohol.

Binge drinking involves consuming five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in a single sitting, as previously described by Harvard researchers. The Ohio State study categorized high-risk drinkers based on their scores on a National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism questionnaire. In all cases, this drinking puts people at risk for serious consequences ranging from fatal injuries and sexual abuse to academic or mental problems and alcohol dependence.

High-risk drinkers in the survey who stopped problem drinking after college typically reduced their alcohol use during school - a sign in itself that their social development was closer to what is considered normal and on track.

If the subset of students most likely to continue problem drinking in adulthood can be identified during college, they might benefit from counseling or programming that specifically aims to lower long-term high-risk drinking, the researchers say. And the junior year might be the best time to introduce the intervention.

"We saw clear differences that, if they could be identified during college, could potentially lead to interventions that would make a difference in the long term," said Ada Demb, associate professor of educational policy and leadership at Ohio State and senior author of the study.

Demb completed this exploratory study with Corbin Campbell, a former master's student in Ohio State's higher education and student affairs program now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. The research is published in a recent issue of the Journal of College Student Development.

Demb and Campbell surveyed graduates of a large Midwestern university about their current drinking habits as well as their alcohol use during college. They received responses from 4,428 alumni who graduated between 1983 and 1993.

The researchers reported the basic survey results in an earlier paper published in the Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education. For this later study, they looked at those results through what they call a developmental lens.

Plenty of research has described the typical psychosocial and cognitive development that college students experience. Generally, development for young adults involves establishing an identity separate from parents and peers, sharpening judgment, developing interpersonal relationships and even mastering the use of alcohol.

Demb and Campbell compared the drinking survey results with typical college student development trends and found that high-risk college drinkers, depending on whether they grew out of the behavior or continued drinking into adulthood, appeared to have used alcohol for different purposes and in different quantities, which may have affected the rate of their social development during school.

The survey confirmed a long-standing statistic associated with college student drinking. For more than two decades, about 40 percent of college student drinkers have been considered high-risk users of alcohol, according to a number of studies. In this survey, 46 percent of the respondents reported they engaged in high-risk drinking during college.

Among high-risk drinkers, about 80 percent will grow out of that behavior. But 20 percent become what the researchers call "adult persistent" drinkers who maintain high-risk alcohol use well into adulthood. In this study, the results were very close to the national trend, with 78.9 percent of respondents scoring as "time limited" drinkers and 21.1 percent scoring as adult persisters whose current drinking behavior could cause them harm.

"We took that 21 percent and asked if there was anything about their behavior during college that could help us identify those who may be able to benefit from a different kind of intervention," Demb said.

One likely visible sign by the junior year would be a consistent drinking pattern throughout the college years, rather than the reduction seen among those who grow out of problem drinking, the study suggests. Student affairs professionals, especially those working in residence halls, are considered the most likely personnel to recognize problems, Campbell and Demb said.

The researchers used a well-known survey designed by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that categorizes different kinds of drinkers. They questioned the adults about their current drinking behavior, and then added a second component, asking the alumni to answer the same questions about how they drank during college.

The reasons for drinking in college were strong indicators for differences between adults who grew out of problem drinking and those who persisted with high-risk alcohol use.

Adult persistent high-risk drinkers were more likely than others to use alcohol for developmental needs beyond the desire for the effect of alcohol and for help with social coping, common reasons for alcohol use among all high-risk college drinkers. The 21 percent of drinkers in the adult persistent group reported they had been more likely to use alcohol for self-confidence and to cope with personal problems during college.

"These students appeared to use alcohol to cope with or avoid developmental tasks," Campbell said. "So then we're asking if, in essence, they're drinking instead of developing along other lines."

Adult persistent drinkers also drank more alcohol during college than did the high-risk drinkers who eventually grew out of the behavior, indicating the time-limited group appeared to learn how to handle alcohol as they developed socially and cognitively while the adult persisters did not.

And even though adult persistent drinkers were more likely than others to say they thought they had had a drinking problem in college, they were ambivalent about whether they wanted to change their current drinking behavior.

"They had an inkling that something was not quite right, but they weren't quite ready to make a change," Campbell said.

"That's not to say any of the drinking in the high-risk group was normal," she said. "About 60 percent of college students are not high-risk drinkers and they are able to master these development tasks. They're able to develop autonomy, master the peer influence piece, manage emotions, develop interdependence with other people - all typical development tasks during college."

Many college-based alcohol intervention programs emphasize prevention and safety and are targeted toward first-year students. Demb and Campbell suggest that specialized programming for potential adult persistent drinkers would ideally focus on future consequences associated with continued excessive drinking, as well as assistance with developmental tasks such as introspective skill-building or developing social competencies outside of alcohol use.

The researchers also noted that family history of alcohol-related disease could be a strong influence on high-risk drinking behavior in college and beyond.

"I don't think there's a silver bullet here," Demb said. "We're not going to get all 20 percent of long-term high-risk drinkers with one kind of program.

"It's also not just a college and university job to take care of all of this, but it is an opportunity. One step we can take is to equip the student affairs professionals who work with students day in and day out with more of this information so they might be more aware of differentiation of students."
-end-
Contact: Ada Demb, (614) 292-1865; demb.1@osu.edu or Corbin Campbell, (301) 793-9616; corbin@umd.edu

Written by Emily Caldwell, (614) 292-8310; caldwell.151@osu.edu

Ohio State University

Related Alcohol Articles from Brightsurf:

Alcohol use changed right after COVID-19 lockdown
One in four adults reported a change in alcohol use almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued: 14% reported drinking more alcohol and reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than those who did not drink and those whose use stayed the same.

Changes in hospitalizations for alcohol use disorder in US
Changes over nearly two decades in the rate of hospitalizations and in-hospital deaths from alcohol use disorder in the US were examined in this study.

Associations of alcohol consumption, alcohol-induced passing out with risk of dementia
The risk of future dementia associated with overall alcohol consumption and alcohol-induced loss of consciousness in a population of current drinkers was examined in this observational study with more than 131,000 adults.

New alcohol genes uncovered
Do you have what is known as problematic alcohol use?

Does estrogen influence alcohol use disorder?
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that high estrogen levels may make alcohol more rewarding to female mice.

Sobering new data on drinking and driving: 15% of US alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities involve alcohol under the legal limit
A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) below the legal limit of 0.08 percent accounted for 15% of alcohol-involved crash deaths in the United States.

Alcohol-induced deaths in US
National vital statistics data from 2000 to 2016 were used to examine how rates of alcohol-induced deaths (defined as those deaths due to alcohol consumption that could be avoided if alcohol weren't involved) have changed in the US and to compare the results by demographic groups including sex, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Cuts in alcohol duty linked to 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England
Government cuts to alcohol taxes have had dramatic consequences for public health, including nearly 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England since 2012, according to new research from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

Integrated stepped alcohol treatment for people in HIV care improves both HIV & alcohol outcomes
Increasing the intensity of treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time improves alcohol-related outcomes among people with HIV, according to new clinical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The Lancet:Targets to reduce harmful alcohol use are likely to be missed as global alcohol intake increases
Increasing rates of alcohol use suggest that the world is not on track to achieve targets against harmful alcohol use, according to a study of 189 countries' alcohol intake between 1990-2017 and estimated intake up to 2030, published in The Lancet.

Read More: Alcohol News and Alcohol Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.