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'Blackouts' common, says new survey

If you fell on your head and experienced a significant loss of memory, Clinical Professor of Medical Psychiatry Scott Swartzwelder would suggest trucking you off to the hospital for an MRI. When the memory loss stems from one too many White Russians, the damage might not be quite as bad, but Swartzwelder wonders why it's considered no big deal.

Knowledge that alcohol overconsumption can have serious effects increases the gravity of a recently published survey conducted by Medical Center researchers suggesting that college students experience alcohol-related "blackouts" more often than previously thought--and engage in significantly risky behavior as a result.

In the first survey of its kind targeted at college students, the researchers used an e-mail survey to collect data on the drinking habits of 772 Duke undergraduates, evenly divided by class and sex.

A total of 74.2 percent of the respondents reported consuming alcohol in the two-week period prior to the survey. Of those, 9.4 percent experienced a blackout during that time, while 51.0 percent reported having at least one during their lives.

"People have long assumed blackouts don't really happen among young college students," said Aaron White, assistant research professor of medical psychiatry and lead author of the study. "Ask any college student and they'll tell you that's wrong, but no one ever did the research to demonstrate that it's wrong."

Swartzwelder agreed the results were surprising. "We didn't really expect that we would get numbers as high as this," he said. "In a lot of colleges today, there's a greater emphasis on drinking with the specific purpose of getting trashed... instead of using it as a social lubricant."

Experiencing a blackout should be regarded as a sign that you are consuming too much alcohol, White said, especially when considering the volume of research indicating alcohol's negative effects on memory and other cognitive functions. "If you're drinking heavily enough to black out, you're drinking enough to damage your brain," he said.

Swartzwelder emphasized that overconsumption of alcohol has been shown to limit the ability to remember information learned shortly before drinking, especially in young adults. "If people are drinking to the point that their brains shut down, college seems like a particularly bad time to do this," he said. "When you're in college, it's all about learning."

From a questionnaire included with the survey, the researchers identified several correlates of a higher incidence of blackouts, including lower grade point average, earlier age of the student's first alcohol experience and a higher rate of drinking in general.

Despite drinking about half the number of drinks per occasion as male students, female students reported roughly the same incidence of blackouts, indicating that women are at increased risk for alcohol-related memory effects.

"Females are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol on memory, even when you adjust for weight," White said.

According to the study, students experiencing blackouts also engage in a wide range of unsafe behavior, including having unprotected sex, vandalizing property and driving a car.

Freshman Andrew Schmidt admitted to having experienced an alcohol-induced blackout. He said he understood the risk they represent, but that sometimes they just happen. "I never planned on doing it," he said. "I definitely try to limit my drinking."

The survey was published in the February 2003 issue of the Journal of American College Health. The same team completed and will eventually publish another survey, conducting 50 phone interviews to gauge more closely the social and emotional factors surrounding blackout incidence.

"I'm not interested in this to find another reason why college students shouldn't drink," White said. Students and college administrators should just be aware of the prevalence of blackouts and their associated dangers, he said.

White explained that the Duke students comprising the survey were not meant to be representative of college students in general. "It's an initial step," he said.


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