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Binge drinking: It's not just for kids anymore

August 17, 2009 |  4:05 pm

The early baby boomers may be known as the generation of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But it turns out, they're hitting the bottle pretty hard as they age, as well. And that portends significant alcohol-related health problems ahead as those mid-lifers become seniors.

A new study finds that among men and women 50 to 64 years old, almost 1 in 4 men and 1 in 10 women is a "binge" drinker -- meaning that at some point in the last 30 days, he or she has downed four (for women) or five (for men) servings of alcohol in a single two-hour sitting. Such alcohol abuse -- roughly defined as the amount needed to attain a blood-alcohol level of .08 (the level at which most states consider a driver intoxicated) -- frequently escapes the notice of physicians, even though it presents an escalating health risk as the drinker ages.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that binge drinkers are more likely to use tobacco or illicit drugs than those who do not drink. (It also found that among women, binge drinking was more common among the employed and those using prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes; among men, it was more common among the unmarried and those with higher incomes.)

Binge drinking among this still highly mobile group is associated with an increased risk of traffic accidents and other alcohol-related injuries. But as these drinkers reach their senior years, when they are more likely to have chronic medical conditions and to take a wider range of prescription drugs, binge drinking incurs greater risks to health, as well. In particular, as this generation escalates its use of analgesic medications for the aches and pains of aging, liver damage can become a greater risk.

Duke University psychiatrist Dan Blazer, one of the authors of the study, said its findings suggest that physicians should ask their patients more pointed and specific questions about alcohol use, because a habit of binge drinking often "flies beneath" the radar of standard alcohol-disorders screens.

The 50- to 64-year-olds surveyed in the latest study are less likely to be risky drinkers than young adults, who in a recent finding, binge-drank at a rate of 41.7% for college students versus 37.1% of those not attending college. Among these populations, experts in substance abuse expect a certain amount of excessive use -- part of exploring limits (and testing their perceived immortality) -- before moderating alcohol consumption as young adults and settling down to the responsibilities of parenthood, careers and adulthood. 

It's not clear how much baby boomers ever settled down and moderated their drinking habits; the latest study takes a current snapshot of American adults, rather than a look across the lifespan of the middle-aged. (One study that looked at a 1999-2000 national survey of Americans found that 67% of baby boomers who drink did so at levels that exceeded moderation.)

But the present study does show that 50- to 64-year-olds engage in binge drinking more than the generation ahead of them does. In those over 65, 14% of men and 3% of women were found to be binge drinkers. (For those 50 to 64, the rates were 23% for men and 9% for women.)

--Melissa Healy 

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Comments (11)

Why is a binge defined as one two-hour session in in the past month in which 5 drinks are consumed? Does setting the bar this low really help us to understand alcoholism or alcohol abuse? 25% of older adults and 41% of college students sounds roughly equal to the total population that consumes alcohol at all. Most "moderate" drinkers are likely to have one such "binge" from time to time. And if such a survey were taken within a month of any major holiday, the numbers would automatically be as high or higher.

As the child of father who very nearly died of severe shock caused by alcohol withdrawal or detoxification, I believe research into alcoholism among the aging population is crucial. But beginning with the assumption that nearly every person who drinks moderately is a binge drinker is not going to help much.

So college student that want to party on their graduation day or seniors celebrating their retirements are all Alcoholics requiring treatment, mandatory 12-step Religious cult meetings & Absolute Solbriety for the rest of their lives.....INSANE!

Please do not let Fox News get a hold of this study. This study will add to their argument that the Woodstock Generation was little but a bunch of hedonists.

So by drinking merely enough to make you an unsafe driver, you are engaging in "binge" drinking and alchohol "abuse" now? As long as you don't do anything dangerous (like drive), isn't this just alchohol USE rather than ABUSE?? What moralistic scold is defining these terms???

We live in a culture that promotes binge drinking, so much so that people who stop using alcohol are said to have a lifelong "disease". Face it: people who choose not to drink are looked upon as oddities.

The 12-Step movement is outdated and has many cult-like attributes. Unfortunately, it is imbued in the healthcare/mental health industry. No wonder folks don't want to talk about their alcohol use and the underlying reasons for it. It's time to re-evaluate our conventional wisdom.

Up next: scientists find 95% of america has had an episode of "binge sleeping" in the last month, defined as sleeping more than 9 hours in one day.

This is nothing compared to their parents' generation. Lighten up, already.

A couple of us "oldtimer" AA members were discussing how often younger speakers these days talk about starting to drink at ages like 8, often not disciplined by parents. This appears to be a new development. Perhaps they are the children of the boomer drinkers.

A binge is 5 drinks in 2 hours? Are you kidding me? Seriously? What constitutes a drink, then? That could be an entire bottle of wine, or 5 cans of bud light. One is probably too much, and the other is unlikely to get anybody very drunk at all.

Studies need to be more exact than this to have any real merit, I think.

Who came up with the "binge drinking" and the "2-3 drinks daily is safe" concepts? Show me a single person with cirrhosis, hepatic encephalopathy or other significant alcohol-related disease who didn't drink heavily on a daily basis. Like all adult behavior, moderation is essential, not meaningless categorization.

This article fails to provide the amount in ounces or mililiters of what a "serving of alcohol" is. Serving sizes vary by container and arbitrarily how the producer decides to label the bottle. Thus, I have no idea what binge drinking is.


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