The conventional wisdom used to be that alcoholics had to hit bottom before they got better. But it can be a long, slow way down. A new government Web site called "Rethinking Drinking" aims to help people recognize problem patterns earlier and catch themselves before they fall.

"Most people don't know what 'drink responsibly' means — they think it means not getting tanked," says Mark Willenbring, director of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "But there are levels of drinking that raise your risk for alcohol problems just like high cholesterol raises your risk for heart disease."

Behind the NIAAA's effort is a new understanding that there is a spectrum of alcohol-use disorders, which some experts hope will replace the current criteria for "abuse" and "dependence." The old definitions were based on observing addicts in treatment. Several large studies of drinking in the general population show that some patterns clearly pave the way for future problems.

The NIAAA say you are at "low-risk" for serious problems if you consume no more than four standard-size alcoholic drinks a day for a man or no more than three for a woman. That may sound like a lot, but you can't drink like that every day. The weekly "low-risk" limit is no more than 14 drinks for a man or seven for a woman. Drinking more daily, or weekly or both carries higher risk of abuse or dependence.

At www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov, you can plug in your average consumption and see how you compare with the general population and problem drinkers. Since this is anonymous, you can try different amounts and see what they mean.

Nineteen percent of Americans exceed either the daily or weekly levels; one in 12 of those people has already progressed to alcohol abuse or alcoholism. About 9 percent of Americans exceeds both the weekly and daily limits; half of them have alcohol problems.

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