The Department of Psychology research is among the few studies to look at the effect of alcohol on students’ next-day functioning, with most others focusing on acute consequences while drinking (such as accidents) or on the longer term effects of alcohol abuse.
The findings are newly published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.
Dr Tamlin Conner and PhD student Maria Polak undertook an internet-based survey of 281 students over 21 days. Their aim was to investigate student drinking patterns and how ‘low risk’, ‘heavy’, or ‘extreme’ levels of alcohol consumption matched up with students’ self-reported physical, cognitive and emotional functioning the day after a drinking episode.
Overall, the participants reported drinking on 26.8% of the survey period days (about 2 days per week), and when they drank, they consumed 7.2 standard drinks on average. Men reported drinking 8.1 drinks on 32% of days, women 6 drinks on 22.5% of days.
Dr Conner says that an important finding is that students who consumed alcohol at ‘low risk’ levels during a drinking episode (no more than six drinks for men or four for women) reported levels of next-day physical and cognitive functioning indistinguishable from students who had not drunk at all.
“Only heavy drinking (5–9 drinks for women, 7–13 for men) and extreme drinking (10+ for women, 14+ for men) predicted significant impairments in next-day physical and cognitive functioning. Extreme drinking produced the most detrimental effects,” she says.
Such drinking was associated with the least amount of sleep, feeling the least refreshed, excessive tiredness and a higher incidence of feeling ill. It was also associated with more problems concentrating and impaired workload management.
Heavy drinking was also associated with impairments in these outcomes, although not to such a great degree.
Low risk drinking occurred on about 50% of the drinking occasions in the study and heavy and extreme levels each occurred on 25%.
The findings back up the message that the problem is not that people are drinking, it is how they are drinking, Dr Conner says.
“Expecting total abstinence from young people is not particularly realistic. However, this research suggests that if they stay within the alcohol guidelines, there should not be too much risk to their immediate health, well-being and educational achievements,” she says.
An innovative feature of the study is that it uses the categories of ‘heavy’ and ‘extreme’ drinking to investigate outcomes. Normally such research is limited to comparing no or ‘low risk’ alcohol use to drinking any unsafe amount, she says.
“By further differentiating unsafe drinking as being at a ‘heavy’ or ‘extreme’ level, we showed that both had negative consequences, but the latter’s were worse. This kind of finding has implications for public health policy generally as it indicates particular attention may need to be paid to curbing extreme drinking.”
The study was funded by a University of Otago Research Grant to Dr Conner.
For more information, contact:
Dr Tamlin Conner
Department of Psychology
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 7624