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Binge Drinking An Issue Among Older Adults

August 18, 2009

Binge drinking is not just a problem among teens and young adults. Many older adults overindulge in alcohol as well, according to a new study published Monday.

Duke University researchers analyzed data from a government survey of nearly 11,000 Americans age 50 and older, and found that 23 percent of men and 9 percent of women between the ages of 50 and 64 reported having binged on alcohol during the previous month.

For the purposes of the study, binging was defined as having consumed five or more drinks on one occasion, on at least one day in the past month.

Among adults age 65 and older, 14 percent of men and 3 percent of women reported binging, the study found.

Alcohol binges are typically seen as a problem associated with the young, with a recent government survey finding some  45 percent of U.S. college students aged 18 to 24 years old having reported a recent binge.

However, the new research shows that older adults indulge as well.

“We feel that our findings are important to the public health of middle-aged and elderly persons as they point to a potentially unrecognized problem that often ‘flies beneath’ the typical screen for alcohol problems in psychiatry practices,” said lead researcher Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Dr. Blazer and colleague Dr. Li-Tzy Wu studied a national health survey conducted between 2005 and 2006.   In addition to binge drinking, the survey examined so-called at-risk drinking, defined as drinking habits that could negatively impact a person’s health.  For the current study, that was defined as consuming at least two drinks per day on average.

Among 50- to 64-year-olds, 19 percent of men and 13 percent of women were considered at-risk drinkers.  Among older adults, 13 percent of men and 8 percent of women were considered at-risk drinkers.

A variety of risks accompany binge drinking, such as neurological damage, blood pressure increases, accidental injuries and violent behavior.

These risks “clearly present” significant consequences later in life, with many chronic health conditions worsened by heavy drinking, Blazer and Wu wrote.

The researchers emphasize that most people who binge drink are not alcohol-dependent, so their problem may go unrecognized.

Blazer advised doctors to specifically ask their older patients about binge drinking.  Those who report binging may require screening for other types of substance abuse, the researchers said.

In the current study, men who reported binge drinking had a higher risk of illegal drug use than those who drank but did not binge.  Meanwhile, female binge drinkers were more likely to abuse prescription drugs.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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