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1 in 10 older adults are binge drinkers, study finds

The researchers found that older binge drinkers were more likely to be men and to be smokers and users of cannabis.

binge drinking
Binge drinking is an unhealthy and unsafe activity for people of any age, but the dangers are amplified for older adults.
Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

More than one in 10 American adults aged 65 or older are binge drinkers, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

For the study, researchers analyzed data collected from almost 11,000 individuals in that age group who had participated in the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health during the years 2015 through 2017. In addition to demographic and health-related questions, the survey asked the respondents about their use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis.

Among those older respondents, 10.6 percent reported binge drinking within the previous month.

Needless to say, that’s a troubling figure. Binge drinking — defined by U.S. health officials as the consumption of five of more drinks on the same occasion for men, and four or more for women — is an unhealthy and unsafe activity for people of any age, but the dangers are amplified for older adults.

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Binge drinking raises the risk of falls and other injuries and of developing chronic health problems — risks that are higher among older adults even when they aren’t drinking to excess. Binge drinking can also complicate the treatment and management of existing medical conditions, often by interfering in harmful ways with prescribed medications.

“We focus so much on young people and their risky drinking, but this research reminds us that we also have to keep an eye on the older population,” said Joseph Palamar, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of population health at New York University, in an interview with NBC News reporter Erika Edwards.

Other findings

Palamar and his colleagues found that older binge drinkers were more likely to be men and to be smokers and users of cannabis.

They were also more likely to have been treated in a hospital emergency room within the previous year than their non-binge-drinking peers, although they were less likely to have two or more chronic diseases.

“This is likely due to selection biases common in observational studies of alcohol use as people with increasing illness tend to stop drinking,” the researchers explain.

A large proportion of the older binge drinkers did, however, have a chronic disease, particularly hypertension (41.4 percent), cardiovascular disease (23.1 percent) and diabetes (17.7 percent).

The study found no association between binge drinking and mental illness, a result consistent with the findings from previous research, the researchers point out.

Limitations and implications

The current study comes with an important caveat. Its participants self-reported their use of alcohol, and such reports may or may not be accurate. People are particularly reluctant to acknowledge behaviors that are associated with social stigma.

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Still, the study’s findings are in line with previous research that has shown that alcohol use — including unhealthy alcohol use — is increasing among Americans of Medicare age. One study found that all forms of high-risk drinking among older adults jumped 65 percent between 2001 and 2013.

“Binge drinking is a risky behavior that may negatively influence the health of older adults,” Palamar and his co-authors conclude in their paper. “The results from this study, therefore, underscore the importance of screening for binge drinking behaviors among older adults who may not be aware of their heightened risk of worsening of chronic disease and injury.”

Aging can significantly affect the body’s tolerance for alcohol. For that reason, health officials at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommend that people aged 65 and older not have more than three alcoholic drinks on any given day and no more than seven drinks in a week.

That advice is for individuals who are healthy and who are not taking any medications, including aspirin, acetaminophen and other over-the-counter medications.

“Ifyou have a health problem or take certain medications, you may need to drink less or not at all,” the officials emphasize.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, but the full study is behind a paywall.