Binge Drinking Has Hit the Baby Boomer Generation

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Alcohol-related problems are on the rise among older Americans.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When you picture a binge drinker, whose image comes to mind? That wild-and-crazy guy who was your roommate in college? Your unemployed uncle, or unhappily married neighbor?

Well, it’s time to consider another possibility: grandma and grandpa.

A new analysis concludes binge drinking and other harmful alcohol-related behaviors increased significantly among American adults aged 50 and older between 2005 and 2014. While rates of such activities are higher among men, they increased dramatically among older women, according to a research team led by Benjamin Han of New York University.

The findings “indicate an emerging public health problem,” he and his colleagues write in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The researchers used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual, nationally representative survey of Americans age 50 and above. Participants provided demographic information, including age, race, income, and marital status, and reported on their general health.

Participants were asked how long it had been since they last drank alcohol; whether they had engaged in binge drinking — defined as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion — during the past 30 days; and whether they met some or all of the criteria listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual (the DSM-IV) regarding alcohol abuse and dependence.

Signs of abuse include “repeated absences or poor work performance,” driving while impaired, or being arrested for alcohol-related offenses. Signs of dependence include “unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control” one’s drinking, or passing up “important social, occupational, or recreational activities” because one is drinking or hung over.

The researchers report that, in the 2005–06 sample, 12.5 percent of respondents reported binge drinking. By 2013–14, that had increased to 14.9 percent. Strikingly, among women, the rate jumped from 6.3 percent to 9.1 percent.

Alcohol abuse and dependence also increased significantly, and the rise was driven exclusively by females. While the rate among older men stayed steady at around 5 percent reporting such problems, the rate among older women nearly doubled, from 1.3 percent to 2.4 percent.

“The large increases among older females who reported binge drinking, or were diagnosed with alcohol use disorders, is alarming,” the researchers write. “Older females are at particular risk for experiencing adverse effects associated with alcohol use, given (the fact that they tend to) experience the adverse effects of alcohol at lower amounts.”

“In addition, compared to males, older females are more likely to be prescribed psychotherapeutic medications, that can lead to severe adverse reactions when taken concomitantly with alcohol.”

No doubt there are multiple reasons behind this disturbing trend. But Han and his colleagues suggest it reflects, at least in part, the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, “which has higher reported rates of substance abuse compared to any generation preceding it.”

So if someone close to you exhibits the warning signs of an alcohol-related problem, don’t dismiss these indicators because he or she is well beyond the legal drinking age. When it comes to problem drinking, 65 may be the new 18.