Can you Really Handle Yourself While Drinking?

Drunk man sitting in a beat up chair outside

Excessive alcohol use is held responsible for about 88,000 fatalities in the United States each year. It is, however, also a drain on the nation’s economy, largely owing to significant reductions in workplace productivity.

The costs accrued due to excessive alcohol use reached $249 billion in 2010, roughly translating to $2.05 per drink. Majority of these costs, almost 77 percent, were due to binge drinking. Most of such drinkers genuinely believe they can handle their alcohol. The latest study, however, wants you to reassess this claim next time you decide to overindulge. [1]

The detrimental effects of higher consumption levels of alcohol on the user’s cognitive function and motor coordination are deeply researched and well established.

It is also observed that individuals with a history of prolonged excessive drinking often show greater tolerance to alcohol than light drinkers.

Rethinking Your Drinking Patterns

The study led by Dr. Ty Brumback, a Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System researcher, claimed that there develops a gradual behavioral tolerance in heavy drinkers in relation to certain fine motor tasks, but not on more complex tasks.

Presenting a new approach to the perception of changes and issues accompanied by excessive drinking, the study.

Even though heavy drinkers demonstrated lower levels of impairment in comparison to light drinkers on a rote fine motor test, their performance lacked adequacy on a test involving more short-term memory, motor speed, and more complex cognitive processing.

The study was published in March 2017 issue of the journal Psychopharmacology.

One-hundred fifty-five young adult volunteers were tested on two cognitive and motor coordination tests at the beginning of the study and again five years later.

Man considered drinking

The study specified heavy drinkers as individuals whose weekly consumption of alcohol ranged from 10 to 40 drinks for at least the past two years at the preliminary testing.

This initial stage of testing included consuming more than five drinks at a time for men and more than four for women.

Light drinkers were categorized as individuals who had less than six drinks per week.

Participants upheld their drinking habits over the five years spanning from initial testing till the follow-up.

Participants completed two psychomotor tasks. Prior to each test, participants were given alcohol in calculated amounts based upon their body weight, in order to attain a specific breath alcohol concentration for each participant. They were then tested at 30, 60, 120, and 180 minutes after the drink.

In the Grooved Pegboard Test, a way to measure fine motor skills, the participants were tracked moving, inserting, and rotating pegs into slotted holes on a board.

This test was representative of real tasks such as using keys to unlock a door.

In the second test called the Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST), participants were provided a legend with various symbols and their corresponding numbers. Each participant was given 90 seconds to correspond the symbols with the associated numbers correctly.

This test helped assess not just fine motor skills, but also short-term memory and cognitive processing. The DSST is more relevant for tasks involving greater complexities such as remembering directions to a novel destination or driving.

The results of the study can be rounded up in the following points:

  • The performance of all participants was significantly worsened on both tests under the influence of alcohol. Initial testing reports showed identical levels of impairments for both light and heavy drinkers on both tasks. At the five-year follow-up, however, both groups showed improvement on both tasks, largely attributed to practice effects.
  • Heavy drinkers demonstrated chemical tolerance to alcohol. Decreases in their breath alcohol concentrations took place at a faster rate after drinking at the five-year retest versus the initial test. This supports the idea that heavy drinkers absorb and metabolize alcohol faster than light drinkers.
  • Even though both groups performed better at the follow-up, heavy drinkers showed less impairment on the pegboard than light drinkers compared to their initial testing scores. This trend, however, did not uphold for the DSST where both groups demonstrated identical levels of impairment during the follow-up testing.

“The results have implications for our understanding of alcohol-induced impairments across neurobehavioral processes in heavy drinkers and their ongoing risks for alcohol-related consequences over time,” explained the researchers.[2]

Dangers of Lowered Self-perceived Impairments and Importance for the Future

“The most important thing about the study is that despite heavy drinkers’ extensive experience with alcohol, increased speed of metabolism, and lower self-perceived impairment, we show that on a more demanding task they are just as impaired as light drinkers,” explained Dr. Brumback, a postdoctoral fellow in addiction treatment with VA and the University of California, San Diego.


The results overall illustrated reduced impairments from sustained heavy drinking, but the development of such a tolerance and faster metabolism of alcohol was of no help for more complex tasks.

According to the researchers, this greater tolerance could be attributed to several reasons such as cellular adaptation within the brain due to repeated excessive drinking, fluctuating sensitivity to alcohol and other contextual factors such as adapting to performing tasks while under the influence.

What’s particularly important is that heavy drinkers often report lower self-perceived impairments than light drinkers.

Such tendencies for heavy drinkers involving lower perceived impairment and higher sensitivity to the stimulating and rewarding effects of alcohol exposes them to greater danger.

They may engage in more potentially risky behaviors and difficult tasks; confident in believing that their impairment levels are lower; and they can handle it.

“Overall, there is a common belief among heavy drinkers that they can ‘handle their alcohol’ and that many common daily tasks may not be affected by their alcohol use,” says Brumback.

“The take-home message here is that tolerance to alcohol is not equal across all tasks and is not ‘protective’ against accidents or injuries while intoxicated, because it may, in fact, lead the heavy drinker to judge that they are not impaired and attempt more difficult tasks. Making such decisions in the moment is highly risky because it is based on faulty information.”[2]

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 26, 2017
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 26, 2017.
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.