For many of us, summertime means trying to cool off with a frozen drink (or three). Boozing is so deeply ingrained in our social gatherings, it’s easy to become desensitized to labels like “binge drinker” or “alcoholic.” Our generation has even seen the advent of the “almost alcoholic” category: men and women who are not (yet) chemically dependent on alcohol, but whose drinking habits merit significant concern nonetheless. Of course, it can be hard to tell whether we fall into these admittedly gray areas. As a result, drinking problems — the kind that can lead to serious health and psychological issues — often go undetected.
Fear not, future selves: Researchers have determined various means of measuring your likelihood of developing alcohol issues. Neuroscientists from the University of Vermont and University College Dublin, for example, found that they could predict 14-year-olds’ future drinking habits with 70% accuracy by studying their brain function, genetics, and environment. Factors like sensation-seeking characteristics, family history, exposure to stressful life events, and others served as fairly accurate predictors of later alcohol abuse. At the same time, there’s no one set combination of traits that underlies teenage drinking; in each case, various possible influences are at work.
That said, if you’re curious about where you or your drinking buddies fall along the spectrum, there seems to be a one-size-fits-all method of screening for alcohol abuse once you’ve actually reached the legal drinking age. According to a recent paper in the British Journal of General Practice, individuals’ answers to the two questions “How often do you have six or more drinks on one occasion?” and “As a result of your drinking, did anything happen in the last year that you wish didn't happen?” serve as fairly accurate indicators of drinking problems, or lack thereof.
By analyzing 17 related studies on the efficacy of simple questions in detecting alcoholic tendencies among a total of 5,646 patients seen in primary care, researchers found that these two simple questions could identify those with alcohol issues in 87.2% of cases — and pinpoint those with responsible drinking habits 79.8% of the time. For those who were initially red-flagged, a longer follow-up survey correctly identified the need for intervention in 90.9% of cases.
At the moment, general practitioners only ask patients about their drinking habits 3% of the time. Couple this with the many folks who skip that annual physical, and you can imagine how often these issues go unchecked. Ideally, by shortening the screening process and widening the number and demographic of individuals surveyed, these findings could pinpoint many problem drinkers who are currently flying under the radar. At the end of the day, though, if you can't think of the last time you stuck to only five beers during a day-long, summer hang, it might be time to ask yourself a question — or, more specifically, two.