A new study has identified the strongest predictors for occurrence of alcohol-related blackouts (ARB) in young people (ages 15-19). The study is the first to examine blackout trajectories over time for this age group.
The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that teens with particular characteristics are more likely to drink to the point of blacking out and to experience the additional alcohol-related dangers.
Blackouts occur when a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is much greater than what is considered “legal intoxication.” The higher one’s alcohol levels, the greater the chance of a blackout.
“We selected 15- to 19-year-olds because the heaviest drinking usually occurs from 15 to around 22 years of age,” said study author Dr. Marc A. Schuckit, distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
“Some people think that blackouts, very bad hangovers, and outrageous behavior at parties are very funny,” said Schuckit. “This does not represent ‘fun.’ People don’t understand how dangerous blackouts are. In fact, people have oodles of misconceptions about drinking.”
“Someone who has had a blackout cannot remember part of their drinking episode,” said Schuckit.
“As you can imagine, blackouts are likely to occur when the drinker is vulnerable to a range of additional dangerous consequences. Women might have unprotected sex, place themselves in a situation where they can be raped, or not be fully capable of protecting themselves.
“Men can get into fights, use very bad judgment regarding another person, and are often the driver when BACs associated with blackouts can lead to a car accident. Blackouts are very dangerous for both men and women.”
For the study, researchers evaluated ARB occurrences for 1,402 drinking adolescents (837 females, 565 males) across four time points : ages 15, 16, 18, and 19. The subjects were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in Bristol, England.
“Our results showed that blackouts were common and repetitive in these young British subjects,” said Schuckit.
“For example, 30 percent of those who drank reported ARBs at age 15, and 74 percent reported ARBs at age 19. Almost half of our sample not only had blackouts during the four total years of our study, but also had blackouts every time we followed up with them, approximately every one and a half years.”
The researchers identified four trajectory groups. The first group reported no blackouts from age 15 to 19 (5.1 percent). The second group had ARBs that rapidly increased with age (29.5 percent). For the third trajectory group, blackouts slowly increased (44.9 precent). The fourth group reported ARBs at all four time points (20.5 precent).
Predictors of the fourth group included being female, having higher drinking quantities, smoking, impulsive-like characteristics, and higher estimated peer-substance involvement.
Schuckit recommended that teens be helped to understand more about the dangers of their drinking. “Kids have to recognize the problem of blackouts themselves and take steps to change behaviors,” he said.
“We need to identify something they can recognize in themselves and their peers so they can learn to modify their behaviors, because blackouts are dangerous, prevalent, and persistent.”