More than one-tenth of adults 65 and older currently binge drink, putting them at risk for a range of health problems, a new study shows.
The study also finds certain factors—including using cannabis and being male—are associated with an increase in binge drinking.
Binge drinking is risky, particularly for older adults due to aging-related physical changes—an increased risk of falling, for example—and the likelihood of having chronic health issues. Despite the potential for harm, little research has focused on binge drinking among older adults.
“Binge drinking, even episodically or infrequently, may negatively affect other health conditions by exacerbating disease, interacting with prescribed medications, and complicating disease management,” says lead author Benjamin Han, an assistant professor in the division of geriatric medicine and palliative care and in the population health department at New York University.
For the study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers used the most recent national data to determine the current prevalence and factors that may increase the risk of binge drinking among adults. They examined data from 10,927 US adults age 65 and older who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2015 and 2017.
The researchers looked at the prevalence of current (past-month) binge alcohol use, which the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines as five drinks or more on the same occasion for men and four drinks or more for women. They also compared demographic and health factors of past-month binge drinkers with people who drank within the past month, but below the binge drinking threshold.
The authors estimate that more than one in 10 (10.6%) older adults have binge drank in the past month—an increase compared to earlier studies. In the decade leading up to the data used in this study (2005-2014), binge drinking among adults 65 and older was between 7.7 and 9%.
Further, men, current tobacco or cannabis users, African Americans, and adults with less than a high school education were more likely to binge drink. Binge drinkers were also more likely to have visited the emergency room in the past year. The study did not find associations between binge drinking and other mental health disorders.
“The association of binge drinking with cannabis use has important health implications. Using both may lead to higher impairment effects. This is particularly important as cannabis use is becoming more prevalent among older adults, and older adults may not be aware of the possible dangers of using cannabis with alcohol,” says senior author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor in the population health department at NYU Langone Health.
The researchers also examined chronic disease profiles of older binge drinkers, and noted that binge drinkers had a lower prevalence of two or more chronic diseases compared to non-binge drinkers. The most common chronic disease among binge drinkers was hypertension (41.4%), followed by cardiovascular disease (23.1%), and diabetes (17.7%).
“Binge drinkers were less likely to have most chronic diseases compared to alcohol users who did not binge drink. This may be because some people stop or decrease their drinking when they have an illness or alcohol-related disease,” says Han.
“Clinicians must be aware that some older adults with chronic disease still engage in binge drinking behaviors, which can worsen their health issues. This may explain why binge drinkers were more likely to report visits to the emergency room.”
Education is key
While the study uses the NIAAA’s recommended threshold for binge drinking, the organization also suggests lower drinking limits for adults over 65: no more than three drinks a day. Since the current analysis used the higher cutoff for binge drinking, the study may 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,” Han says.
Additional coauthors are from NYU and the University of California, San Diego. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supported the work.