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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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