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Researchers study question as feds rate Chicago worst among big cities in USA

University Of Chicago : 14 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
In the University of Chicago's 'King Lab'' there are no beakers or Bunsen burners. A leather couch, an ottoman, a TV. Not a bad place to kick back and have a drink. That's what happens there, as researchers with the Chicago Social Drinking Project try to crack some of the mysteries of alcohol, in particular why some people binge on booze and others don't.
'It's amazing how you get very different reactions in people. One person can be so disinhibited and happy while others are just about ready to fall on their face' from fatigue, said Andrea C. King, a psychologist who heads the five-year project.

Andrea C. King of the University of Chicago is leading a five-year project to study why alcohol affects people differently.

King and her colleagues are examining the drinking habits of 190 local adults. About half of the subjects are binge drinkers, regularly consuming five or more drinks in a single sitting one to four times a week.

Last week, a federal study said Chicago leads the nation's big cities in binge drinking, though it used a looser definition of binge drinking than King does.

Impaired decision-making
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services researchers report that 25.7 percent of people 12 and older in the Chicago metropolitan area binged at least once in the last 30 days. That narrowly edged Houston at 25.6 percent and Boston at 25 percent. Nationally, 22.7 percent reported bingeing.

Why Chicago takes the crown of the king of beers is unknown. The differences among the top three cities are statistically insignificant, said the Health Department's Dr. H. Westley Clark. But the problem is not.

'We don't want to characterize binge drinking as 'it's going to destroy your liver or your kidneys.' What we're saying is binge drinking puts you in hazardous situations because of impaired decision-making,'' Clark said. 'You're doing things you normally would not do, and you're engaging in behaviors that might endanger your life or others' such as driving while drunk and other reckless behavior.

Drink up at lab
Differences in short-term reaction to alcohol may help explain why some people binge and others don't, King said.

In her U. of C. laboratory, King and her colleagues have been testing people between the ages of 21 and 35. The subjects are given drinks of varying alcohol content and asked questions about how they feel.

Those drinkers who typically binge one to four times a week say they feel 'up' and stimulated while imbibing in the laboratory; typical 'light drinkers' feel sedated or stressed while consuming alcohol.

Not surprisingly, the heavy drinkers want more; the light drinkers, feeling sluggish or uncomfortable, do not.

'That's what happens in the real world. Heavier drinkers start feeling the buzz, and they want to enhance the buzz or keep the buzz going. They don't want to crash,'' King said. Meanwhile, in light drinkers, the brain is calling for a halt before stimulation sets in. King has detected that in some of the light drinkers, levels of cortisol, a hormone released during stress, increase.

'We don't know if you're born with this predisposition to feeling stimulated by alcohol or if it's something that's acquired over time,'' King said. 'We think of binge drinking as a rite of passage for college students but it may be sensitizing them for the future. It's not clear.'

Last year, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale researchers wrote that drinkers who binge three or more times per week are particularly problematic.

These 'heavy and frequent' binge drinkers face far more negative consequences than other drinkers, Cheryl A. Presley and Edgardo R. Pimentel wrote in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Using a survey of 18,000 students at 96 colleges nationwide, they reported these heavy and frequent drinkers had more than double the number of alcohol-related social problems than students who said they binged only once in the last two weeks. Of the 'heavy and frequent' drinkers, about 69 percent said their drinking had led them to do 'something they regretted' in the last year, including getting into a fight (22 percent), damaging property (33 percent), being hurt or injured (38 percent), or being 'taken advantage of sexually' (21 percent).

One analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that four out of five people who admitted to having driven while drunk were also regular binge drinkers.

'I get a little buzz'
Not all binge drinkers would be clinically classified as alcoholics, a classification that includes being unable to control drinking and a physical addiction.

Kevin, a 31-year-old south suburban married father of two, drinks five or six Budweisers four to five times a week. 'I get a little buzz and call it a night,' Kevin said. 'It's a way to calm down.'

He doesn't consider himself an alcoholic. He hasn't called in sick to his job as an auto parts manager in 10 years, usually drinks at home and doesn't drive after drinking. 'A drunk is belligerent and irresponsible and a moron,' Kevin said.

But David Malham, a clinical social worker with the Illinois chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said regular binge drinkers are guilty of 'alcohol abuse.'
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