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Memory loss from excessive drinking is on the rise with teenagers

A “blackout” is a phenomenon caused by the intake of any substance, in this context alcohol, or in which long term memory creation is impaired, therefore causing a complete inability to recall the past. Blackouts tend to occur when a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is likely significantly above what is considered legal intoxication.

New research suggests that it is a common misconception that blackouts generally occur only in alcoholics. The effect is increasingly common among underage drinkers. With this, researchers looked at data on 1,402 drinking teenagers in England when they were aged between 15 and 19. The study revealed that by the time the youngsters reached the age of 19, 90 percent of them had drank so much they had experienced a blackout at least once. More worryingly, around half of them had blacked out multiple times. Interestingly, the blackout effect was more common in females than with men, a fact the researchers put down to weight differences.

As to why blackouts happen, according to Lab Manager magazine, alcohol is classed as a depressant. When the dose is high enough, then depressants impair memory acquisition.

The study indicated four classes among the young people:

Class 1 (5 percent) reported no blackouts from age 15 to 19.
Class 2 (30 percent) blackouts rapidly increased with age.
Class 3 (45 percent), blackouts slowly increased.
Class 4 (20 percent) blackouts were common at any age.

Tips to help lower the chance of blackouts provided by the HAMS Harm Reduction Network, other than drinking less or abstaining, include:

Eating: When we eat a meal this causes the valve between the stomach and the intestine to close for several hours, which significantly slows the influx of alcohol into the bloodstream.

Keep hydrated: If you drink a lot of water before you have any alcohol then you will not be thirsty, which means alcohol is consumed more slowly.

Pacing yourself: simply slowing down the drinking speed.

Consume weaker drinks: Generally, the weaker the drink the longer it takes to drink it.

Consume stronger tasting drinks: Strong tasting drinks also often take longer to drink than tasteless ones. For example many people will drink a gin martini more slowly than a vodka martini.

Rest: Blackouts are more common with people who are sleep deprived.

Never mix alcohol and medication: many medications increase the chance of blackouts, especially those containing codeine.

The research was led by Marc A. Schuckit, distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. The findings have been published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The study is titled “Latent Trajectory Classes for Alcohol-Related Blackouts from Age 15 to 19 in Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC.)”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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