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Heavy Drinking After College

When one thinks of heavy drinking, one usually jumps straight to college students, due to popular culture references and stereotypes that paint college as a breeding ground for excessive alcohol consumption. Despite their stereotypical nature, these assumptions do hold some weight. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that approximately 80% of college students engage in alcohol consumption. This statistic can be seen playing out on the weekends here at Colby College, as well as at many other colleges around the country, when students put down their textbooks and start to drink. Many of them drink a lot, with approximately 50% of students who drink alcohol also engaging in binge drinking (NIAAA). Binge drinking is defined as four alcoholic drinks in two hours for women, and five alcoholic drinks in two hours for men (NIAAA). Heavy drinking, then, is when a person engages in binge drinking more than five times in a month. At Colby, it is not uncommon to hear of girls drinking over ten drinks in a night; boys, up to twenty. The effects of such risky behavior are often cited as being responsible for bad grades, poor social relationships and general unhappiness (NIAAA). Despite the repercussions of excessive drinking, many students laugh it off as “just a college thing,” and expect that they will go back to a normal, generally sober, life after graduation. But what if they don’t stop? Will the alcohol have a similar effect later in life?

Because college is such a hotbed of heavy drinking, little research has been done on the effects of heavy drinking on adult populations. Houston et al. (2014) decided to investigate the effects of alcohol consumption on a population of participants in their mid-thirties, thus solidly out of their college years. Specifically, they were interested in the effects of drinking on cognitive functioning – one’s ability to respond to others, think, and perform tasks efficiently. Are older adults, generally thought to be over their days of heavy drinking, also negatively affected by excessive alcohol consumption?

It is already known that Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD), such as alcoholism or other instances where alcohol usage impedes the quality of one’s daily life, result in executive cognitive functioning deficits (Houston et al., 2004). People often do not perform daily tasks as well immediately after drinking or prolonged excessive alcohol consumption. But what about those who do not drink to the point of a disorder? Does alcohol still have a negative effect on cognitive functioning?


First it is necessary to define cognitive function, because it is obviously a rather important component of our daily lives. Executive cognitive functioning affects our response inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory:

  • Response inhibition manages impulsivity and allows for good decision-making. This might affect small decisions like what to buy at the grocery store, or result in risky behavior, such as crossing the street without looking for cars.
  • Cognitive flexibility also affects our problem-solving abilities, thus allowing you to find your way home when you are lost, or perform well on an academic exam.
  • Working memory allows us to hold information in our heads while we perform other tasks, essentially multitasking. Thus, we can hold a conversation while looking for a specific item at the grocery store, and not forget to buy the item before leaving.

Cognitive functioning, therefore, is imperative to our success in daily tasks, and even to our survival. In the most extreme of circumstances, without adequate cognitive functioning, you might be hit by a car you forgot to look for, or make an otherwise horribly impulsive decision that puts your life at risk. Previous research has already found that drinking in college impairs cognitive functioning during college (Hartley et al., 2004). So yes, your weekend drinking escapades are hurting your grades and your decision-making abilities. Likewise, prolonged alcohol consumption negatively affects the cognitive functioning of older adults, (Son et al., 2011). But what about in the middle, after the wild years of college and before drinking becomes a negative lifelong habit? To find out, Houston et al. (2014) measured the weekly drinking habits of 280 male-female couples in their mid-thirties and tested their cognitive functioning to see if there was any correlation between drinking and cognitive performance.

Through a set of cognitive tests, Houston et al. (2004) found that heavy drinking, as defined above by the NIAAA or by getting drunk at least once a week, does damage executive cognitive functioning. The more participants drank on a weekly basis, the more likely they were to experience cognitive functioning deficits (Houston et al., 2004). Through closer analysis, Houston et al. (2004) found that even moderate drinking results in slower performance in reading comprehension, task completion, etc. Because cognitive functioning is impaired in studies done on college students, studies done with older adults, and studies done on adults in their mid-thirties, it seems that the effects of alcohol are pervasive. Even beyond our college years, continued heavy drinking will affect our brains’ ability to function. In fact, the drinking habits of adults in their mid-thirties could even be termed more dangerous, because they are likely more stable habits than those acquired during the more formative years of college. The moral of the story? Keep your drinking to a moderate level, because both in college and out, as it can impair some essential cognitive functioning.




Aaron M. White PhD , David W. Jamieson-Drake PhD & H. Scott Swartzwelder PhD (2002) Prevalence and Correlates of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Among College Students: Results of an E-Mail Survey, Journal of American College Health, 51:3, 117-131, DOI: 10.1080/07448480209596339

Hartley, D. E., Elsabagh, S., & File, S. E. (2004). Binge drinking and sex: Effects on mood and cognitive function in healthy young volunteers. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 78, 611–619.

Houston, Rebecca J., Derrick, Jaye L., Leonard, Kenneth E., Testa, Maria, Quigley, Brian M., Kubiak, Audrey. (2014). Effects of heavy drinking on executive cognitive functioning in a community sample. Addictive Behaviors (39), 345-349.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. College Drinking. Retrieved from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/CollegeFactSheet/CollegeFactSheet.pdf.

Son, S.J., Lee, K.S., Oh, B.H., & Hong, C.H. (2011). The effects of head circumference (HC) and lifetime alcohol consumption (AC) on cognitive function in the elderly. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 54, 343-347. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2011.05.025



College Drinking.

“Shaken, Not Stirred: Alcohol Consumption in Older Adults.”


Woman Drinking

Categories: Aging Tags: ,
  1. October 19th, 2015 at 16:39 | #1

    This post doesn’t leave me with any questions just a general wondering about the effects of alcohol on the developing brain versus a brain that is considered to be “developed”. While the actual age for full development is different for everyone and sometimes quite a controversial topic, Johnson et al. explains that “full” development of the brain- especially that of the prefrontal cortex that is in charge of decision making and impulse control- doesn’t occur until the early to mid twenties. This being the case, I wonder if the effect of binge drinking or excessive alcohol consumption is enhanced in the adolescent brain than a brain of someone in their thirties? While drinking has an effect no matter what age you are in he areas such as response inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory, I wonder if there are any studies that address the difference in brain as a dependent variable. Another interesting aspect to throw into a study would be the individual’s capacity in a career. Does drinking have a greater or lesser effect on an individual with a career that requires greater practice in the possible effected areas (we maybe entering into the difference between controlled and automatic processes and the effect of alcohol on those processes)?

    Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy. The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 45(3), 216–221. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.05.016

  2. October 22nd, 2015 at 09:15 | #2

    This article captured my attention because many large cities with prevalent young adult populations experience the “work hard, party hard” culture that plagues many college campuses. For example, I see this with my brother’s job in Houston, Texas; co-workers exclusively bond over drinks and frequently engage in binge-drinking. It was useful to learn how this sort of behavior can pose negative effects to cognitive functioning, which in turn can affect work performance. I would be interested in learning what specific cognitive functions are hindered from this heavy drinking, and how this would alter job performance across a variety of disciplines.
    Moreover, I was surprised by how moderate drinking also hurts cognitive tasks, specifically with reading comprehension and task completion. I have always heard drinking wine in moderation is beneficial for one’s health, specifically for the cardiovascular system (German & Walzem, 2000). However, it is great to discover information with a different perspective, as drinking alcohol, in moderation or heavily, influences all parts of the body, and its impact on the brain is essential to learn.

    German, J. B., & Walzem, R. L. (2000). The Health Benefits of Wine. Annual Review Of
    Nutrition, 20, 561.

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