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Can People Really “Handle Their Liquor?”

In a June 19 CNN interview, Andrea King, PhD, and Nathan Didier, MS, of the University of Chicago Clinical Addictions Research Laboratory were recently interviewed by CNN about their recent open access article in Alcohol: Clinical and Experiment Research, entitled “Holding your liquor: Comparison of alcohol‐induced psychomotor impairment in drinkers with and without alcohol use disorder.” In their interview, these authors discuss the common misperception that individuals who drink more heavily are better at “handling their liquor” than less frequent or heavy consumers of alcohol. Dr. King notes a societal increase in both binge drinking (four or more drinks in a sitting for women and five or more for men) and high intensity drinking (eight or more drinks for women and ten or more for men respectively). However, Dr, King emphasized that more frequent drinking at heavier rates does not necessarily result in increased tolerance or decreased functional impairment.

Data for the newly published study were derived from Dr. King’s ongoing Chicago Social Drinking Project, a longitudinal study of drinking patterns among young adults. This study categorized individuals into three groups: light (up to six drinks per week, no binge drinking), heavy (minimum 10 drinks per week, one to five binge drinking episodes per month), and alcohol use disorder (AUD; 21 drinks for women, 28 for men, binge drinking on at least one-third of days per month, in addition to disorder criteria). The experimental study had participants complete two lab conditions – one with alcohol and one with a placebo. For the “alcohol” condition, individuals were given alcohol consistent with a binge-drinking episode that accounted for participant sex and weight. Individuals completed cognitive and psychomotor tasks at baseline, then at 30-, 60-, 120-, and 180-minutes, as well as a subjective impairment rating. In a follow-up, participants in the AUD group were given alcohol consistent with a high intensity drinking episode to more closely mirror the typical drinking pattern they reported.

Compared to the placebo condition, all groups demonstrated poorer performance on the cognitive and psychomotor tasks during the alcohol condition. Comparing the alcohol condition across groups, at the first interval (30 minutes after drinking), participants in the light group reported more subjective impairment and greater decreases in behavioral impairment on the tasks, as well as a longer delay to baseline performance. However, when individuals in the AUD group were given an alcohol dose commensurate with high intensity drinking, their impairment was more than double that of a binge-drinking dose and they continued to demonstrate impairment after three hours.

Though the heavy and AUD groups demonstrated decreased behavioral impairment associated with binge drinking compared to the light group, at high-intensity levels, the AUD groups showed marked and long-lasting behavioral impairment. In the interview, Nathan Didier shared that his primary takeaway from this work is that “even if you have a lot of experience drinking, that doesn’t mean you’re not impaired.”

Source: Didier, N., Vena, A., Feather, A. R., Grant, J. E., & King, A. C. (2023). Holding your liquor: Comparison of alcohol‐induced psychomotor impairment in drinkers with and without alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.15080

LaMotte, S. (2023, June 19). Heavy drinkers really don’t ‘handle their liquor,’ study says. CNN. Retrieved June 22, 2023, from https://www.cnn.com/2023/06/19/health/heavy-drinkers-handle-liquor-wellness/index.html.