In the News: Study shows binge drinking higher with older people

Students who binge drink might be hesitant to tell their grandparents about their drinking habits — but grandparents may binge drink more often than students.

A study this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the 18 to 34 year-old age group has the most binge drinkers. But among people age 65 and over, those who do binge drink, do it more often.

“Little old ladies, we don’t think about them binge drinking,” said Toni Miles, professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health, “Very few people talk about older adults and binge drinking.”

While most relate binge drinking to the college crowd, a study by the Center for Disease Control shows older adults as key bingers. Staff/The Red & Black

Instead, heavy drinking is often associated with college students, especially at the University, which was named the country’s No. 2 party school last year by Princeton Review.

“For our students here at UGA, their perceptions of how much and how often other UGA students are drinking are highly overestimated when compared with actual drinking behavior reports of our students,” said Deanna Walters, the alcohol and other drug prevention coordinator at the University Health Center. “Our students also significantly underestimate how many students are not drinking at all.”

According to a 2011 survey by the University, 37.6 percent of University undergraduates who drink reported binge drinking within the previous two weeks – a smaller percentage than in past years’ surveys. Nationwide, 28 percent of adults age 18 to 34 take part in regular binge drinking, according to statistics in a New York Times articleabout the CDC survey.

College students and older adults generally drink in different situations, and face different risks from heavy drinking.

In contrast to drinking at bars or parties – the most visible places for young people to drink – older adults tend to drink at home and often alone, Miles said.

Research doesn’t show why people of any age drink, but Miles said there is anecdotal evidence that older adults might drink to deal with sleeping problems or self-medicate aches and pains.

Anyone who participates in binge drinking risks alcohol-related injuries, being involved in fights, a higher risk for sexual assault, car accidents and abstract thinking impairment, Walters said. They also have a higher long-term risk of developing alcohol tolerance, which means they are four times more likely to develop alcoholism.

Older adults have some additional risks associated with drinking, including injuries from falls, cardiac rhythm problems, breathing problems and interactions with chronic prescription medications. For older adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, drinking can worsen cognitive impairment. On the other hand, older adults have a lower risk of DUIs or alcohol poisoning than young adults.
For people of all ages, drinking can lead to unsafe decisions about sex. Adults over 50 now have the highest growth rate of new HIV infections, Miles said, possibly fueled by medications such as Viagra that make it easier for older adults to have sex.

“This is a group that only worried about pregnancy when they were younger,” she said. “Well, that’s not going to happen anymore, so they feel liberated from that concern. They just don’t understand they’re at risk, and now they have some new toys to get in the game.”

But whether or not today’s college students are likely to be heavy drinkers when they are over 65 remains a question.

“It’s hard to know if someone will continue their high risk drinking behavior beyond their time at UGA. Most people will reduce their drinking and make low-risk decisions,” Walters said. “I don’t think it’s common for people to start drinking heavily after college if they abstained during their time in college.”

Statistics:
(from New York Times article)

  • 28 percent of 18-34-year-olds binge drink an average of 4 times per month, consuming an average of 9.3 drinks each time.
  • About 4 percent of people over 65 binge drink an average of 5.5 times per month.

(from the University’s Core Alcohol and Other Drug Survey)

  • In 2011, about 37.6 percent of UGA undergraduates who drink reported binge drinking within the past 2 weeks, compared to 44.1 percent in 2009 and 45.4 percent in 2007.

Sex and Binge Drinking in Older Americans

Dr. Miles was interviewed on the WGAU’s show “Liz Talk” on the topic of “Sex and Binge Drinking in Older Americans” on February 22, 2012.  Listen to the interview here: part 1 and part 2. (Downloads also available.)

– Briana Gerdeman

Posted February 1, 2012.

Originally published in the Red and Black