Binge drinking is defined as drinking 4-5 drinks in succession within several hours. This happens frequently with young people, but this drinking pattern is more common than once believed. Those who “party” on weekends and function well during the rest of the week, or those who engage in heavy drinking once or twice a week and consume 4-5 drinks in one session are participating in binge drinking. Drinking a six-pack of beer or an entire bottle of wine at one time is considered binge drinking.
Why is binge drinking dangerous?
Many binge drinkers, especially high school and college students who consume these quantities of alcohol in a short time-frame, run the risk of alcohol overdose. Because young drinkers are less experienced than those who are older and who have been drinking longer, the risk is also great for alcohol poisoning.
Because this age group participates heavily in binge drinking, there is another risk. During the teens and early adulthood, brain formation and development are still occurring. Brain tissue is still pliable and malleable. Alcohol can destroy the formation of brain functions in memory, speech, and learning. This is a risk that does not exist in older populations where brain function has already reached full development.
Risks for behaviors associated with heavy drinking or binge drinking exist as well. These occur in accidents, violence, and other risks associated with loss of coordination, responsiveness to surroundings, and aggressive behaviors. Even those who do not become violent when drinking is more likely to be attacked or victimized. For example, many teen girls and young adult women binge drink at parties and social events until they are nearly or fully unconscious. In this state, they are more likely to become victims of "date rape."
Adults who binge drink run the same risks as young adults. The effects and potential for brain damage are similar but not as severe for older drinkers. Both age groups also run the risk of long-term health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke with continued binge drinking.
How is binge drinking harmful?
The pre-frontal cortex in the brain of young drinkers becomes thinner. This developing area of the brain is responsible for functions such as decision making, emotional responses, and impulse control.
Loss of these functions can lead to diminished regulation of emotions, poor decision making, and impulsive behaviors for the life of the drinker. This leads to difficulty in relationships, career, and all areas of life.
Damage done to the physical body of the binge drinker can be permanent, as well. Heart disease or stroke can be long-term effects. Those who survive these health conditions will have to contend with related disabilities for life. The same is true for type II diabetes. Diabetes worsens over time and can kill drinkers who do not successfully treat the disease of alcoholism or its symptoms.
Is a binge drinker the same as an alcoholic?
Some binge drinkers may be able to stop the behavior and drink socially on occasion. Part of the reason they are able to do so could be that they have not done severe damage to the pre-frontal cortex of their brain. Perhaps they are not genetically predisposed to become habitual, alcoholic drinkers. This is difficult to determine. Medical professionals do not yet know if drinking from a young age is the cause of alcoholic drinking, but it may be a factor.
The behaviors of binge drinking in young adulthood can lead to a tendency to drink this way in later years. Those who binge drink may be unable to stop at any point during a drinking session. Binge drinking can be a symptom of alcoholism but is not necessarily a cause.
Younger binge drinkers who continue to drink this way are likely to become problem drinkers in the future. Alcohol is recognized as an addictive substance, but most professionals in the medical and treatment fields do not believe that binge drinking creates alcoholism. Behaviors of alcoholic or problem drinkers may be seen in those who abstain from binge drinking, yet still, become alcoholics.
The answer, therefore, at this time, appears to be: some binge drinkers are alcoholics and some are not. Those who continue to binge drink from a young age may be showing early symptoms of problem drinking. Some people who binge drink in high school or college may be able to quit and will never develop an addiction to alcohol.