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Binge Drinking Harmful to Older Adults, May Be Hidden by Weekly Average

Binge drinking, also known as episodic heavy drinking, is a form of alcohol intake characterized by consuming enough alcohol to rapidly reach a legally intoxicated state. While the practice is commonly associated with young adults, it also occurs with some regularity among older adults. In a study scheduled for publication in May 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from three U.S. institutions looked at what can happen when an older adult who typically consumes moderate amounts of alcohol occasionally binge drinks. These researchers concluded that even occasional binge drinking participation in these adults has serious long-term consequences.

The Basics

Binge drinking gets its name because it involves episodes or binges of excessive alcohol intake. According to definitions established by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, these binges drive a participant’s blood-alcohol level up to or over 0.08 percent (the common standard for legal drunkenness throughout America) in two hours or less. In order to reach legal intoxication within that timeframe, the average man must consume at least five drinks (each containing 0.6 oz of pure acohol). The average woman must consume at least four drinks to reach legal intoxication in a two-hour timeframe.

By definition, binge drinkers exceed the established public health recommendations for both moderate daily alcohol intake and the maximum daily consumption level allowable for anyone wishing to avoid increased risks for diagnosable problems with alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Participation in the practice also comes with a range of other known serious health risks, including heightened chances for cases of non-fatal or fatal alcohol poisoning, liver disease, violent assault, accidental injury, nerve damage, diabetes complications and several potentially fatal heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) problems.

Frequency in Older Adults

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks binge drinking levels among all U.S. adults and teenagers with an annual project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The latest figures from this project (released in the fall of 2013) indicate that the peak level of binge-drinking participation (45.1 percent of all people in the age range) occurs among young adults between the ages of 21 and 25. From this peak, participation in the practice dwindles gradually in adults over the age of 25. For example, only 33.7 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 34 binge drink, while only 25 percent of adults between the ages of 45 and 49 engage in the practice. The lowest rate of binge drinking participation (8.2 percent) occurs among adults 65 and older.

Consequences in Older Adults

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System used an examination of 446 adults between the ages of 55 and 65 to explore the consequences of binge drinking in older adults. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know what happens to the life expectancies of older adults who keep their overall average alcohol intake within moderate levels but still occasionally binge drink.

The study included 74 moderate alcohol consumers who binge drank from time to time, as well as 372 moderate alcohol consumers who never engaged in binge drinking. In addition to binge drinking, the researchers looked at the impact of a number of other factors that can contribute to a shortened lifespan, including such things as socioeconomic status, various health problems and involvement in other high-risk behaviors. Taking all of these factors into account, they determined the underlying causes of death in all of the study participants who died over a 20-year timeframe. The researchers concluded that, compared to their counterparts who never participated in binge drinking, those participants who occasionally binge drank had a more than 100 percent greater chance of dying within 20 years. This fact held true even when all other contributing factors to mortality risks are considered.

Significance and Considerations

Critically, the authors of the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research note that an older adult who binge drinks on occasion still has increased chances of dying at a younger age if he or she maintains overall alcohol intake levels that fall within a moderate range. They cite potential age-specific contributors to binge drinking-related risks in older populations that include the presence of additional serious health problems and a fairly high level of medication intake.

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