Binge drinking is often associated with young adults, but according to a new study, more than 10% of people over 65 do it, too.
Among seniors, binges are most common in men and those who use cannabis, researchers found. Experts said the trend is troubling, because older people should actually be cutting back on alcohol.
“Many organizations, such as the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA], recommend lower drinking levels as people get older or have more chronic diseases,” said lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Han, an assistant professor of geriatric medicine at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Other studies have documented increasing alcohol consumption in the United States and worldwide, he said.
Binge drinking is generally defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks at a time. NIAAA suggests seniors cap their alcohol intake at three drinks a day.
Because the new study used the higher cutoff, it may actually underestimate how common binge drinking is among U.S. seniors.
Han isn’t sure why binge drinking is on the rise among older people, but he has a theory.
“It is possible,” he said, “that the increase in binge drinking is partly driven by increases by older women.”
Although their male counterparts are more likely to binge, older women are catching up. Binge drinking among older men remained relatively stable between 2005 to 2014.
Han says doctors should screen older adults for “unhealthy alcohol use, including binge drinking, even if it is not frequent.”
For the study, his team collected data on nearly 11,000 U.S. adults 65 and older who took part in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2015 and 2017.
Of those, 10.6% had binged in the past month, the study found. That was up from previous studies. Between 2005 and 2014, between 7.7% and 9% of older Americans were binge drinkers.
Blacks and people with less than a high school education were more likely to do so, the researchers found.
They found no link between binge drinking and mental disorders or a higher incidence of chronic diseases. Among senior binge drinkers, the most common chronic diseases were high blood pressure (41%), heart disease (23%) and diabetes (18%).
Still, researchers warned that excessive drinking can make chronic diseases worse and lead to accidents.
That binge drinking is increasing is worrisome, said Dr. James Garbutt, medical director of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“By definition, binge drinking means drinking to the point of intoxication,” said Garbutt, who wasn’t involved with the study. “In older adults, that increases risks of falls, other accidents, blackouts, cognitive impairment, depression and suicide.”
Plus, alcohol makes high blood pressure worse and is a significant factor for dementia, he said.
“It seems we need to educate older adults about these risks and encourage them that if they are going to drink alcohol, to limit intake to one to two standard drinks and try not to drink daily,” Garbutt said.
If people find they can’t drink without a binge, they should talk with their doctor or a counselor and consider a period of abstinence to see how they feel, he said.
“Reducing or stopping drinking could be one of the best things they do for their health, and many are surprised at how good they feel,” Garbutt said.
The report was published July 31 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
For more on binge drinking, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.