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Senior Citizens Have a Binge-Drinking Problem, According to a New Study

New research finds that a growing number of seniors are drinking too much, too often.
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New research finds that over 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 binge drink regularly.

What's your image of a binge drinker? Someone in their 20s, perhaps, getting wasted with a group of friends?

It turns out that young people aren't the only demographic prone to this specific type of self-destructive behavior. New research finds that over 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 binge drink regularly.

That figure is higher than it was a decade ago, which suggests that, as Baby Boomers age, some are carrying the unhealthy habits of their youth into their senior-citizen years. Such behavior is troubling for a variety of reasons.

"Binge drinking, even episodically or infrequently, may negatively affect other health conditions by exacerbating disease, interacting with prescribed medications, and complicating disease management," lead author Dr. Benjamin Han of New York University said in announcing the findings. He further noted that heavy drinking can increase the risk of serious injury, which can be much harder to bounce back from after you've reached a certain age.

The study, in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, analyzed data from the 2015, 2016, and 2017 United States National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It featured responses from 10,927 Americans aged 65 and older, who were asked whether they drank alcohol and, if so, whether they had engaged in binge drinking in the past month. The definition of binge drinking from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol is consuming at least five drinks at one sitting for men, and at least four for women.

The researchers found that 10.6 percent of older adults reported at least one binge-drinking episode in the past month. That's an increase from the 7.7 to 9 percent who reported binge drinking in similar data collected from 2005 to 2014.  Men reported higher rates of binge drinking than women; black Americans had higher rates than whites.

While people suffering from chronic diseases were less likely to report binge drinking—presumably because they had received a warning from their doctor against it—many seniors with such conditions continued to indulge. Forty-one percent of respondents with high blood pressure, 23 percent of those with cardiovascular disease, and nearly 18 percent of diabetics reported binge drinking in the past month.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, binge drinkers were more likely to report being treated by a hospital emergency department in the past year. "This has important public health consequences, as the continued increase in binge drinking among this population may lead to higher health-care costs and an increase in societal burdens," the researchers write.

Han and his colleagues also express concern that people who report smoking marijuana were more likely to also admit to binge drinking. "Co-use of both may lead to higher impairment effects, a high consumption of both substances, and a higher risk of experiencing mental health disorders," they warn.

Finally, the researchers note that the federal government's guidelines recommend no more than three drinks at a time for senior citizens. "Since our analysis used the higher cutoff [of five drinks], these data likely underestimate the prevalence of binge drinking among older adults," they write.

The results are a warning for physicians, public-health officials, and everyone worried about higher health-care costs. Many seniors, it appears, assume their bodies can tolerate alcohol just as well as they did 40 or 50 years ago. Discovering otherwise can be costly both for them, and for society as a whole.