9 out of 10 heavy drinkers don’t have alcoholism, says CDC

Dec. 15, 2014—Is drinking alcohol a health concern even among those who don’t experience alcoholism? Many people who engage in excessive drinking are not actually dependent on alcohol, suggests a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite not displaying signs and symptoms of alcoholism, these adults can still experience many negative health effects from drinking too much.

Apart from nonfatal health problems, CDC statistics show excessive drinking is responsible for 88,000 deaths in the United States every year.

About the study

CDC experts analyzed data for the 138,100 adults who completed the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The survey, which is nationally representative of U.S. residents, assessed drinking patterns as well as characteristics of alcohol dependence.

Nine out of 10 people who drink excessively—defined as women who weekly consume 8 or more drinks and men who weekly consume 15 or more drinks—did not meet the criteria for alcohol dependence.

Additional findings showed that:

  • Excessive drinking, binge drinking and alcohol dependence were most common among men and people of both sexes ages 18 to 24.
  • Binge drinking—defined as 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in one occasion—was most common among those with annual family incomes of $75,000 or more.
  • Alcohol dependence was most common among those with annual family incomes of $25,000 or less.
  • Binge drinking was related to alcohol dependency: 10.5 percent of those who engage in binge drinking are alcohol-dependent, compared to 1.3 percent of those who do not binge drink. And 10.2 percent of people who drink excessively are alcohol-dependent.

The results, which can be read in Preventing Chronic Disease, highlight the need for increased screening and public health interventions to reduce excessive drinking.

The take-home message
Even adults who aren’t alcohol-dependent can put their health at risk by drinking too much. In the short term, excessive alcohol use can increase the likelihood of car crashes and injuries, alcohol poisoning, and risky sexual behavior. In the long term, drinking too much can lead to serious health problems such as cancer, heart disease and depression.

Overall, CDC estimates nearly 100,000 alcohol-related deaths occur each year in the United States. However, you can help to reduce alcohol’s negative effects by not drinking too much. To prevent excessive alcohol use:

  • Assess your drinking. Choose not to drink too much yourself. Help others do the same.
  • Don’t serve or provide alcohol to those who shouldn’t be drinking, like children and teens, as well as adults who have already had too much alcohol.
  • Discuss your drinking behavior with your doctor. If you think that you drink too much, ask for help.

To learn more about the definitions of excessive drinking—and its effect on health—check out this infographic.


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