Dec. 26, 2012 -- You rarely turn down wine with dinner, not to mention that second (or third) cocktail at happy hour—but that doesn't make you a binge drinker, does it? It depends, but according to a new report by the CDC, an exploding number of Americans are in the drinking danger zone -- and they aren't always who you'd think.
More than 38 million adults binge drink an average of four times a month, according to a the report, and while 18 to 34 year olds are more likely to go overboard than any other age group, it's actually the over-65 set that does it most often. Tying one on now and then may seem harmless, but overindulging in alcohol is responsible for more than 80,000 deaths in this country per year, and is the third leading cause of preventable deaths.
So how much alcohol means you're overdoing it? For women, binge drinking means having four or more drinks in a short period of time, compared to five or more for men.
Most people who binge drink don't fit the definition of an alcoholic, but there aren't just two camps of drinkers, say experts: Many of us are somewhere in between. To find out where you fall on the problem-drinking spectrum, read on for these surprising signs you may be drinking too much.
You Become a Daredevil
Anyone who's seen their normally shy co-worker dancing on the bar at the company party knows drinking can lower inhibitions. Getting drunk can come with repercussions far worse than feeling embarrassed—it can lead to risky decisions. "Drinking too much on just one occasion can change your life for the worse," says Gregory A. Smith, MD, an addiction specialist at the Comprehensive Pain Relief Group in Los Angeles. Alcohol is also a factor in approximately 60% of fatal burn injuries and drownings, 40% of fatal falls and car accidents, and half of all sexual assaults, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
You're a Weekend Warrior
If you don't drink daily but are drinking regularly, such as every Friday night, that's a red flag," says Dr. Smith. While research shows that having about seven alcoholic beverages per week lowers your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, abstaining all week only to guzzle five or six glasses in a single sitting negates any of alcohol's potential health benefits. Moreover, binge drinking can raise blood pressure and interfere with certain medications. "Plus, it's easier for women to suffer acute alcohol poisoning that could lead to death because it could take only six or seven drinks for someone who is 5'3" and 115 pounds, while it may take twice that amount or more for a larger man," says Dr. Smith.
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Have you ever told yourself you were going to have only a drink or two at happy hour, and before you knew it you'd downed four? One of the clues that you may be a binge drinker is not knowing your limits—or feeling surprised when you've "suddenly" passed them. Like diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems, drinking problems develop gradually. That's why it's smart to reevaluate your drinking habits regularly by writing down how much you drink and when. That will make it easier to rein yourself in if you're starting to get a little out of control.
Your Memory Temporarily Goes Missing
Alcohol affects everyone differently, depending on your genes, what, if any, medications you're taking, as well as whether you just ate a big meal (food slows the absorption of alcohol in your bloodstream). Still, researchers speculate that heavy drinking interferes with how you remember by disrupting a key brain messenger called glutamate, which is linked to memory. That means if you have ever "forgotten" parts of the night until your drinking buddies reminded you, or have woken up foggy as to how you got home and into bed, you've definitely had one (or three) too many.
You Let Some Responsibilities Slide
"Drinking is a problem when you notice that you've started to neglect things that are important to you for the sake of alcohol," says Keith Humphreys, PhD, of the VA/Stanford University Center for Health Care Evaluation in Palo Alto, California. Maybe you're normally a dedicated parent, but a Saturday night buzz means you have trouble putting the kids to bed. Or you skip your Monday morning spin class because you feel hung-over from the weekend. When drinking is prioritized over your normal day-to-day life, you're probably in the danger zone.
People Close to You Seem Concerned
If your family, friends, or co-workers have hinted (or flat-out vocalized) that they're worried about you, it's time to cut back.
"The first step is to recognize that you're drinking more than you should, and then to set some goals for yourself," says Deidra Roach, MD, of the NIAAA.
Tell your partner or friend what your drinking limit is going to be before you go to an event where alcohol is free flowing. This makes it easier to say no to the next drink, because you're being held accountable by someone else. "And if you're afraid to ask people if you drink too much, that's probably a sign that you're overdoing it, too" says Dr. Humphreys.
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