Binge drinking is largely associated with high school and college-aged people—teenagers and young adults who are just beginning to experiment with alcohol and don’t yet know any better. It is much less associated with older adults, and certainly not with seniors. Seniors, we tend to think, have a wealth of wisdom and experience that discourages them from such risky behavior. Seniors know better.
But despite the stereotype that binge drinking is a folly of youth, this behavior has become a quietly significant problem among the elderly. A new study from Larkin Community Hospital in Miami, Fla., found that 10 percent of a group of 4,800 seniors in Florida reported binge drinking in the last 30 days.
This is less than the estimated 25 percent of teenagers and young adults who engage in binge drinking. Even so, it is a significant percentage and higher than reported figures. This suggests that binge drinking among the senior population is often underreported and therefore unaddressed in many individuals.
“The increasing trend in elderly binge drinking in the U.S. is cause for alarm,” the study authors wrote. “Alcohol consumption in seniors can be associated with cognitive decline and worsening of comorbidities, including hypertension, stroke and osteoporosis.”
The definition of binge drinking may also contribute to the under-recognition of senior binge drinking. The standard of five drinks in one sitting for a man and four in one sitting for a woman was developed for teenagers and young adults. However, seniors may experience similar levels of intoxication and impairment, and face similar health risks, with smaller quantities of alcohol.
Many Health Concerns for Binge-Drinking Seniors
Binge drinking is always a health risk, but it can have a unique and uniquely severe effect on members of the elderly population.
For teenagers and young adults, one of the biggest risks of binge drinking is that of doing long-term damage to the still-developing brain. This is not really a concern for seniors, whose brains reached maturity long ago. However, the flip side of this maturity is that senior brains have stopped developing and are no longer adding neurons and connections. In other words, seniors are largely stuck with the brainpower they have, and activities like binge drinking can rapidly increase mental decay.
There are short-term health risks with binge drinking in young adults, including alcohol dependence and alcohol poisoning, but there are many more short-term risks for seniors. The physical health of elderly people tends to be much more fragile, and binge drinking can worsen conditions like osteoporosis, hypertension and stroke.
Because seniors are often dealing with various health problems, they are often taking one or more prescription medications on a regular basis. The presence of prescription drugs can add to the risks involved in excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol can decrease the effectiveness of some drugs, while other drugs can have harmful interactions with alcohol that result in nausea, vomiting, fainting, heart problems, internal bleeding or breathing problems.
Medications that should not be combined with alcohol come with warnings, but these warnings can be overlooked for a variety of reasons. They are often in small print on drug labels, and can escape the notice of people with impaired vision. Pharmacists and doctors may neglect to warn patients about the dangers of combining certain drugs with alcohol, particularly if a patient has been on the same medication for some time. The impression that binge drinking is not a major problem among seniors may contribute to this occasional neglect.
Different Populations of Seniors More Likely to Binge Drink
The Larkin Community Hospital study—presented at the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry in 2014—found various trends among the population of seniors who reported binge drinking.
The average age of the seniors who reported binge drinking was younger than the average age of those who did not: 71 years of age compared to 74. Sixty-four percent of the self-reported binge drinkers were male. Twenty-nine percent of the study participants were veterans of the Armed Forces, but 35 percent of the self-reported binge drinkers were veterans. Those who reported binge drinking were also more likely to be Hispanic, less likely to have a college education, and more likely to have an income of less than $25,000 per year.
Elderly binge drinkers were also much more likely to smoke but, surprisingly, the study found lower rates of coronary heart disease among the binge drinking population.
The authors of this study suggest that physicians should increase their overall awareness of drinking among seniors, and be more mindful of screening for alcohol consumption when prescribing medication.