Science of student life: alcohol
A beer to socialise, wine with the dinner, large amounts of alcohol at the numerous parties – students obviously drink a lot. But what are the implications of our drinking behaviour for our health? This is the third instalment in the series ‘Science of Student Life’.
Alcohol, our good friend and steady companion. Student alcohol consumption on holidays and in everyday life is extraordinary. How come we drink so much, and how harmful is it really? I asked sociologist Ronald Knibbe, an expert on drug and alcohol abuse, for an answer.
How much do students drink?
“A lot. In 2006 we did a survey among high-school students aged 16 to 18 on a camping trip to the Wadden Sea. In a fortnight, these students drank on average 25 glasses per day. Many drank even much more.”
But this is on holiday – what about everyday life?
“The same students indicated that on average they drink 32 glasses per day on a regular weekend. More interesting for you: a study found that one in four full-time students aged 16 to 25 is a ‘problem drinker’ (drinks at least 20 glasses per week and shows black outs, tremors, morning drinking). This is more than in any other age group.”
What are the implications for our health?
“The brain develops until you are 24 or 25. Alcohol lowers the connectivity between the cells in your brain, a factor that is crucial for brain performance. Note also that only about 20 per cent of the damage caused by alcohol results from chronic abuse, such as liver damage. The majority comes from accidents. You lose control, get into a fight, and end up in hospital.”
Is drinking a little bit every day better than occasionally getting drunk?
“With regard to public health, yes. Looking at your liver, however, drinking a lot once, then giving your body time to recover, is more beneficial.”
Any truth to the saying, ‘a glass of red wine a day is good for your heart’?
“Studies confirm that people who drink one or two glasses of wine per day have a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. But there is no agreement on the mechanism underlying this beneficial effect. I believe that it is important to look at the nature of drinking situations. In our culture, they offer optimal freedom: the comforting effect of mechanistic solidarity allows you to put aside duties and responsibilities.”
Wait, mechanistic solidarity?
“Did you ever notice how you adjust to the behaviour of your vis-à-vis? We yawn when others around us yawn, just as we drink and eat as much and as fast as our counterparts do. This ‘mirroring’ basically applies to any behaviour, and the mechanism underlying it is very basic and powerful. Without realising it, we adapt to the people around us. The ritualistic character of drinking situations – we all drink ‘in synchrony’ – can explain a large part of their appeal. Behaving (drinking) as a group frees us from individual sorrow and responsibility. It allows us to relax and get rid of stress.”
How much do you drink yourself?
“One to two glasses per day, maximum, on exceptional occasions I may drink four glasses a day. When I was a student, it was not so different: I drank maybe three glasses about two to three times a week. Regarding the benefit of drinking, I think time-out situations are important, and especially young people seek situations of freedom. The specific risk for younger people, however, is their susceptibility to group influences and the fact that they are still learning to integrate long-term risks and short-term benefits. The executive (control) system of the brain is the last to develop fully. So, unfortunately, brains in development are not only more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, they are also least able to handle drinking situations.
What do you conclude from that?
“An important model in public health, the so-called preventive paradox, tells that a small change in a large group is more effective than a large change in a small group. To limit the damage caused by alcohol, I therefore think it is vital to prevent overconsumption in the general population – not in the high-risk group of chronic drinkers. How to achieve this? By limiting drinking through external measures. Once you have alcohol in your blood – no matter how old you are – coordination and controlled behaviour deteriorate. There must be someone that tells you, ‘you’ve had enough’. Or as in the case of legal drinking age, ‘you really should not drink’.”
What advice would you give to students?
“First, be aware of the time you spend in drinking situations – you will adjust to the people around you, and associate drinking very strongly with relaxation and comfort. Second, make sure the relationship market works out well. This advice is especially for young men, who on average drink three times more than women. Having a partner, or kids, reduces drinking behaviour.”