It’s the worst nightmare of parents of any college student: The middle-of-the-night phone call reporting that College Student Son or Daughter is in a hospital emergency room on the other side of the country.
And an article in the June 27, 2011 on-line edition of the journal Injury Prevention points to a major cause – students drinking to blackouts. The report, an analysis of data from the College Health Intervention Project Study (CHIPS), surveyed 796 undergraduates and 158 graduate students at four universities in the US and one in Canada between 2004 and 2009. The analysis indicated that memory blackouts are a significant predictor of future alcohol-related injuries among college drinkers after adjusting for heavy drinking episodes.
One or two blackouts make it much more likely that a student will suffer an alcohol-related injury in the future. Blackouts frequently follow short-duration, heavy drinking binges – as few as three or four shots as many as ten or more in 60 to 90 minutes and often on an empty stomach. In the Injury Prevention study, more than half of the undergraduates reported experiencing a blackout sometime in the last 12 months; 7% had more than six. The overall prevalence of alcohol-related injuries was just over 25 percent and the risk was the same for men and women.
Of special importance was the finding that the more alcohol-related blackouts a student experienced, the greater the risk of accidental injury – one or two blackouts increased the risk by 57 percent; students with at least six blackouts were nearly three times as likely to suffer an injury.
“It may be easier for a student to dismiss general health warnings on excessive alcohol drinking harms than to refute that his extreme alcohol drinking is causing impairment in brain function, ” the authors of the report noted.
“Blackouts are distinctively different from passing out,” notes Francis J.(Skip) Flynn, Psy.D., director of clinical services for Brain Training Centers of Florida and an addiction counselor. “Both can be extremely dangerous. Students tend to pass out after extended periods of drinking; they think they’re just ‘going to sleep it off.’ Unfortunately, passing out after consuming too much alcohol may result in cardio-pulmonary failure and death,” explained Dr. Flynn.
“Generally, students who blackout have been ‘pre-gaming’ – consuming quantities of alcohol in short periods of time before going to a party, football game or even going out drinking. They tend to lose the ability to recall recent events because high concentrations of alcohol alter nerve cell communication in the hippocampus region of the brain, which affects memory formation,” explained Flynn. “In short, events that occur during a blackout never get into memory and will never be recalled. In this state, students often completely lose track of how much they have consumed, where they are, or how to keep themselves safe.”
In the study, students 18 to 20 years old, “sensation seekers, and those reporting the most heavy drinking days reported the highest numbers of blackouts. Male problem drinkers reported consuming just under 82 drinks during the previous 28 days, while female problem drinkers consumed just under 59 drinks.
“When we remember that the ‘drinking mentality’ of underage drinkers is ‘I have to drink as much and as fast as possible because I don’t know when I will be able to drink again,’ these results make absolute sense to 18, 19 and 20 year olds, but not to their parents and school officials,” observed Flynn.
“Obviously, as much as ‘helicopter parents’ might want to, parents can’t watch over their away-at-school children every minute of the day, but they should be aware and take reasonable precautions. Parents have an obligation to check students’ credit card accounts for indicators of alcohol use; they should establish firm rules regarding alcohol abuse – one medical crisis, shame on you, a second crisis and you’re home for a year,” said Flynn, who, lectures to college student audiences across the US and Canada about preventing alcohol and drug abuse problems.