Binge Drinking in Older Adults on the Rise

Approximately one in ten adults age 65 and older currently binge drink, putting them at risk for a range of health problems, according to a new study by researchers at NYU School of Medicine and the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU College of Global Public Health.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also finds certain factors—including using cannabis and being male—are associated with increased binge drinking. According to the study, almost 11 percent of adults aged 65 and older reported binge drinking— defined as having more than five drinks for men and four for women in one sitting—at least once in the past month, in a nationally representative survey of almost eleven thousand people in 2015-2017.

The same group of researchers published a similar study in 2017, looking at binge drinking among older adults from 2005 to 2014. Though the two studies asked slightly different questions about alcohol use, less than 9 percent of people over the age of 65 said they'd engaged in binge drinking during the past month in the previous study, which led researchers to believe rates of excessive drinking in older adults may be rising.

Binge drinking is risky at any age, but older adults are uniquely vulnerable to its health effects because excessive alcohol consumption can have dangerous interactions with medications and worsen symptoms of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, 

Due to physiological changes related to aging, older adults tend to have a higher blood alcohol level for a given amount of alcohol intake and an increased sensitivity to alcohol. "Binge drinking, even episodically or infrequently, may negatively affect other health conditions by exacerbating disease, interacting with prescribed medications, and complicating disease management," said Benjamin Han, M.D., the study's lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine's Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care, and the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.

The National Institute on Aging warns that too much alcohol can lead to balance problems and falls in older adults, which can result in hip or arm fractures and other injuries. “Older people have thinner bones than younger people, so their bones break more easily. Studies show that the rate of hip fractures in older adults increases with alcohol use.”

 

Like members of other age groups, older Americans frequently drink to cope with emotional pain and mental health issues. Loneliness, depression, or chronic pain may prompt older adults to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. However, excessive alcohol use can worsen health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss, and the very mood disorders drinking is supposed to alleviate. Unchecked, alcohol consumption may turn into full-blown alcohol addiction, requiring treatment. 

The NYU researchers also noted that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends lower drinking limits for adults over 65: no more than three drinks a day. Since the current analysis applied the higher general threshold for binge drinking (five drinks for men and four for women), the study may actually underestimate the prevalence of binge drinking among older adults. "Our results underscore the importance of educating, screening, and intervening to prevent alcohol-related harms in older adults, who may not be aware of their heightened risk for injuries and how alcohol can exacerbate chronic diseases," said Dr. Han.