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Binge-Drinking in Older Adults Doubles Risk of Death
According to nationwide surveys, around one in six American adults binge drinks four times per month. While most binge drinkers are not alcohol-dependent, the practice of binge drinking carries its own risks, and even though the lack of addiction may make these individuals feel as though their drinking is “safer,” this may not be the case. In fact, new research has shown that among “moderate” drinkers aged 55 to 65, binge drinking is associated with a doubling of the risk of death over the course of 20 years. The study shows the importance of understanding patterns of drinking and their consequences, rather than focusing on an average weekly consumption that can provide a misleading picture of the risks associated with alcohol.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is easy to understand if you think of the general definition of binge, which is commonly applied to food consumption (or even back-to-back watching of TV programs). It’s an unrestrained, excessive period of consumption that ordinarily occurs on specific occasions rather than continuously. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines a binge as a period of drinking resulting in a blood-alcohol content of around 0.08 percent. In terms of the number of drinks consumed, this translates to four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men within about two hours. However, the average amount of alcohol consumed in a period of binge drinking is around eight drinks, according to research. There are many well-established consequences of binge drinking, including accidents (e.g., falls, automobile accidents or even drowning), domestic violence, alcohol poisoning, liver disease and cardiovascular (heart and vein) illnesses. Despite these facts, binge drinking is the most widespread form of excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S., according to the CDC.
The new study looked at the relationship between binge drinking and mortality in a total of 446 participants between the ages of 55 and 65. While they were all considered “moderate drinkers” when looking at the total amount of alcohol they consumed in a week, seventy-four of the participants were considered bingers, meaning that much of the “moderate” weekly consumption for these individuals actually took place on one excessive period of drinking. The primary outcome the researchers were looking for was whether the patients died over the following 20-year period, and additional information on each participant’s behavioral, socioeconomic and health status was used to determine whether other factors were influencing the results.
Binge Drinking Increases Mortality
The researchers found that the death rate for the binge drinkers was considerably greater than for the drinkers who didn’t binge, despite each group consuming roughly the same amount of alcohol per week, with 61 percent of bingers and 37 percent on non-bingers dying in the following two decades. The researchers used the additional information obtained to mathematically control for the potential factors affecting the results, and overall it was found that the risk of dying over the course of 20 years for a binge drinker is over twice that of a moderate drinker. The researchers point out that focusing on average consumption in studies on moderate drinkers is inadequate, because it “masks” the significant differences in drinking patterns.
Lead study author Dr. Charles Holahan commented that, “Binge drinking concentrates alcohol’s toxicity and is linked to mortality by damaging body organs and increasing accident risk. Binge drinking may be additionally risky for older adults due to aging-related elevations in comorbidities as well as medication use.”
All Moderate Drinkers Are Not Equal
The implications of this study are immediately obvious and have fairly wide-reaching consequences for how we look at alcohol as a society. There is an inherent temptation to feel as though an individual’s drinking isn’t a problem because it falls under the definition of “moderate” consumption, but pattern of drinking actually seems to be the relevant factor. Binge drinking is startlingly common, and healthcare providers may not even be able to identify those at risk if they don’t ask the right questions—after determining average weekly consumption, it’s essential to find out whether it’s spread equally across the week or concentrated in one or two days.
The findings of the new study may help to awaken people to the dangers inherent in their binge-drinking patterns, particularly older individuals, but the most important thing is that physicians and healthcare providers get the message: just because drinkers fall into the “moderate” category doesn’t mean they aren’t placing themselves in unnecessary danger.