Consuming large amounts of alcohol within a short period of time, otherwise known as binge drinking, has often caught media attention in the past in relation to college students, which sometimes results in tragedy. But now, an eye-opening new study has revealed that binge drinking is also a serious issue among older Americans. According to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, about one in 10 older adults are considered binge drinkers.
“Binge drinking, even episodically or infrequently, may negatively affect other health conditions by exacerbating disease, interacting with prescribed medications, and complicating disease management,” said Dr. Benjamin Han, lead author of the study, in an article last week by The New York Times. Han noted that for starters, excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of injury — and the repercussions from a fall are far more serious for an 81-year-old than say, a 21-year-old.
The study defined binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks in a sitting for men, and four or more drinks in a sitting for women. Drinks were defined as a can or bottle of beer, a glass of wine or a wine cooler, a shot of liquor, or a mixed drink with liquor in it. The research team analyzed data from the annual U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2015 and 2017. The findings included 10,927 adults aged 65 or older who reported their drinking habits in the previous 30 days. Han said the group did not include adults living in long-term-care facilities or nursing homes.
Still, overall, binge drinking among older adults is still relatively low compared with other age groups, says Han. According to the study, the highest prevalence of binge drinking occurred in college-aged adults, 18 to 25, with over 38 percent falling into the category. The next age group, adults ages 26 to 34, was the second highest percentage.
Though Han says the drinking habits of teenagers and younger people should continue to be an area of focus among researchers and clinicians, more attention should be paid to the drinking habits of older adults.
Timothy S. Naimi, an alcohol epidemiologist and professor at Boston University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health, agrees, telling the Times that the one in 10 figure “is an impressive number and it’s concerning.” He added that the number is “undoubtedly an underestimate,” because people rarely give an accurate account of how much they actually drink — and many heavy drinkers, for a variety of reasons, are probably not even being included in such studies.
Han said he hopes the study will emphasize the importance for health care professionals to screen older adults for alcohol use and, in turn, educate them about how their bodies become more sensitive to alcohol as they age.
Dr. George F. Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of the funders of the study, said the findings reinforced previous data collected on heavy drinking among older adults. In 2017, epidemiologists at the institute published a study using data from 2001-2 and 2012-13 that showed that problem drinking was rising among older Americans. Koob says the general public often underestimates the serious dangers of binge drinking, which can be lethal more often than we realize. For example, many people erroneously assume or believe that certain celebrity deaths, such as Amy Winehouse or Billie Holiday, were to due to drug overdoses, but in actuality were the results of binge drinking.
“You can actually kill yourself much more easily with alcohol combined with one of these pills,” said Koob of the lethality of excessive drinking while also on prescription medication, which many older Americans are taking.
So, how does all this affect those living with HIV — especially older survivors who may fall into this binge drinking category? The scary truth is excessive drinking can have a detrimental effect on poz people’s health for a variety of reasons. Heavy alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system and damage the liver, as well as lead to risky behaviors that increase the chance of acquiring HIV or passing it on to others (such as not adhering to HIV meds or having unprotected sex), according to the Alcohol Rehab Guide.
The Guide notes that, according to a recent Yale University study, people living with HIV report feeling more “drunk” with less alcohol than those who are HIV-negative, and are more likely to forget to take their medications when drinking than people without HIV. This finding suggests that HIV may make the brain particularly vulnerable to alcohol’s effects and can cause a great damage if used consistently. The researchers noted that even poz patients who indulged in just one or two drinks a day are at greater risk for death and other alcohol-related health issues than HIV-negative patients.
Another big issue is mental health. Research has shown that older adults living with HIV are more prone to depression and other mental health issues, so for those that are also heavy drinkers, this can be a serious problem. Alcohol is classified as a depressant and is known to worsen many mental health conditions.
According to the Rehab Guide, a recent study found that depression is the most commonly observed mental health disorder among those living with HIV (affecting about 22 percent). Many long-term survivors in particular suffer from feelings of isolation as well as PTSD (often a result of living through the first wave of the epidemic in the 80s and 90s).
“Alcohol can intensify these feelings and even lead to suicidal thoughts. Depression can cause HIV-infected individuals to stop taking their medications, going to medical appointments, and to actively stop engaging in personal care,” the Guide states.
Ultimately, Koob says that excessive drinking among older adults is something we can no longer afford to ignore. “This is the elephant in the room piece about alcohol that society doesn’t understand,” he said, adding that alcohol “is a drug and when it’s taken in excess, it can have some pretty harmful effects.”