Listening to news reports lately, you'd be forgiven for thinking that binge drinking is the exclusive province of college students or bachelor-party attendees in Las Vegas. But you'd be surprised to know that a significant number of older Americans hit the bottle hard on a regular basis-and it's wreaking havoc on their health.

According to a study conducted by researchers at Duke University Medical Center, 22 percent of men between the ages of 50 and 64 and 9 percent of women in that age group admitted to downing five or more drinks at a time in the previous month, which is considered binge drinking. In addition, 19 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women consumed at least two drinks a day. Older people fared only slightly better-fourteen percent of men aged 65 or older and 3 percent of women in that age group were found to be binge drinkers, with 13 percent of men and 8 percent of women consuming two or more drinks a day. Risk factors for heavy drinking included having a higher than normal income, being a smoker or drug user, and being separated, divorced, or widowed. Among women, using prescription drugs recreationally was also a marker for binge drinking. More than 11,000 people were asked about their alcohol habits for this study, which took place in 2005 and 2006.

Heavy drinking is a problem for anyone, but for older people whose health is naturally more fragile, the effects of alcohol can be devastating. Often family, friends, and medical professionals may not think to examine an older patient's drinking habits, since alcohol abuse is often considered a younger person's problem, but the risks are there. Aside from the very real possibility of hurting themselves or others when drunk, older people who imbibe a lot are at risk of stroke, heart disease, liver issues, certain cancers, osteoporosis, ulcers, brain damage, and uncontrolled diabetes. Drinking may cause their mental state to be fuzzy, which can be mistaken for dementia. And studies show that they tend to underestimate their impairment when compared with younger drinkers. It may take only a moderate amount of alcohol to impair an older person, and he or she may not even be aware of it.



Sources: Duke University Health System,; National Institute on Aging,; Effects of Acute Alcohol Consumption in Older and Younger Adults: Perceived Impairment Versus Psychomotor Performance, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 70, 242-252.