Binge drinking is usually seen as a problem of college campuses, but many older adults may be overindulging in alcohol as well, a study published Monday suggests.
Using data from a government survey of nearly 11,000 Americans age 50 and up, researchers found that 23 percent of men between the ages of 50 and 64 admitted to binge drinking in the past month, as did roughly 9 percent of women.
Among adults age 65 and older, more than 14 percent of men and 3 percent of women reported bingeing — defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion, on at least one day in the past month.
Alcohol binges are often considered a problem of youth. One recent government study found that among U.S. college students between the ages of 18 and 24, 45 percent reported a recent drinking binge.
But the new findings, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, show that older adults can be susceptible too.
"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," lead researcher Dr. Dan G.
Blazer, of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, noted in a written statement.
Blazer and colleague Dr. Li-Tzy Wu based their findings on a national health survey conducted between 2005 and 2006. Along with binge drinking, the survey looked at so-called at-risk drinking — drinking habits that could have negative effects on a person's health. In this study, that was defined as averaging at least two drinks per day.
Among 50- to 64-year-olds, 19 percent of men and 13 percent of women were at-risk drinkers. The figures among older men and women were 13 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
Binge drinking carries a number of risks, including accidental injuries, violent behavior, neurological damage and blood pressure increases. These hazards, Blazer and Wu write, "clearly present" greater consequences later in life, when people often have chronic health conditions that can be aggravated by heavy drinking.
Yet, the researchers note, most people who binge are not dependent on alcohol, so their problem drinking may go unrecognized.
The message for doctors, Blazer said, is that they should be asking their older patients specifically about binge drinking.
Patients who do report bingeing may also need to be screened for other types of substance abuse, according to the researchers.
In this study, men who reported binge drinking had a higher risk of illegal drug use than men who drank but did not binge, while female binge drinkers had a heightened likelihood of prescription drug abuse.