Do you binge drink?
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
When news reports overflowed on the dangerous rise in binge drinking in young people, college campuses cracked down with zero-tolerance policies on both underage and legal drinking among students. The next step in the battle against binge drinking may be zero-tolerance rules in retirement homes.

A recent study by researchers at Duke University and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that binge drinking—defined as five or more servings of alcohol in a sitting—isn't just for kids. The study found that 22 percent of men and 9 percent of women ages 50 to 64 reported a binge within the past month. The survey even found binge drinking among senior citizens—14 percent of men and 3 percent of women older than 65 reported bingeing. While those are smaller percentages than they are among younger people, they are significant.

The headline-grabbing statistics didn't surprise Dr. Marvin Seppala, the chief medical officer at Hazelden, an addiction rehabilitation treatment center based in Minnesota. "It's new information because we haven't looked at binge drinking in that population a whole lot," he says. "It's nice to get it nailed down so we have a better sense of what's going on in that age range. We know that lifetime prevalence of the likelihood of alcoholism—which is different from binge drinking—is about 10 to 12 percent of our population."

The survey also noted some specific ways aging baby boomers put themselves at risk by binge drinking. For instance, alcohol can make existing health conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes significantly more deadly and can cause strokes and dementia. Some common prescription medications warn about side effects when they are mixed with alcohol, and Dr. Seppala says the elderly are at a higher risk of falls and broken hips when under the influence.

Dr. Seppala points to several root causes of binge drinking among more older people. One is force of habit—simply continuing the level of alcohol consumption they had when they were younger. Another is stresses, particularly that caused by the current economic recession, as people age. "Our boomers, they're looking at retirement and it suddenly got pushed way back. Their jobs are on the line; they may have lost their jobs, their ability to provide for their families. Their kids are in college, and they can't afford it," Dr. Seppala says. "You know, at the start of this economic downturn, economic pundits started talking about putting your money in alcohol. Why is that? Because people drink more during these down economic periods."

Another reason that older people and college students binge drink is an abundance of free time and boredom. "[They drink] just to fill in the time and feel a little better," Dr. Seppala says.

Dr. Seppala says education is needed to combat the negative effects of baby boomer binge drinking. If people had healthier attitudes about drinking, binge drinking in non-alcoholics wouldn't be as prevalent, he says. The problem is that it's unclear what those healthy attitudes would be. "There is a use of alcohol that could be considered, I don't know if I'd call it healthy, but at least it's not unhealthy," he says. "A lot of good comes from healthy use of alcohol. It's just that in our country, people tend to really overdo it on a regular basis, resulting in health consequences."

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