Binge Drinking May Double Older People’s Risk of Dying, Study Shows

March 6, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas — Studies have shown that moderate drinking, such as sipping a relaxing glass of wine with dinner, may be beneficial to your health. Yet a new psychology study from The University of Texas at Austin shows that binge drinking may shorten lifespan, even for those who are overall moderate drinkers.

The study, to be published in the May online-only issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that older adults who engage in binge drinking have double the odds of dying within the next 20 years in comparison with moderate drinkers in the same age bracket who don’t engage in binge drinking. Results are currently available at Early View.

“Binge drinking is increasingly being recognized as a significant public health concern,” says Charles Holahan, professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently concluded that binge drinking is ‘a bigger problem than previously thought.’ Ours is one of the first studies to focus explicitly on an older population in examining binge drinking among, on average, moderate drinkers.”

Using data from a larger study, the researchers analyzed the effects of alcohol consumption among 446 men and women between the ages of 55 and 65. The groups consisted of 372 moderate drinkers and 74 moderate drinkers who were occasional binge drinkers. Male moderate drinkers drank no more than four alcoholic beverages per day and no more than 14 per week. Females consumed no more than three drinks per day and seven per week. The study controlled for a broad set of socioeconomic, behavioral and health issues, including heart disease, obesity, physical activity levels and diabetes.

According to the results, older adults who engage in heavy episodic drinking — even when typical consumption is moderate — show significantly increased total mortality risk compared with the group of non-binge drinkers. The findings demonstrate that, among older adults, drinking patterns need to be addressed along with overall consumption in order to understand alcohol’s health effects.

Although binge drinking is damaging at any age, these findings are especially concerning for older adults.

“Binge drinking concentrates alcohol’s toxicity and is linked to mortality by damaging body organs and increasing accident risk,” Holahan says. “Binge drinking may be additionally risky for older adults due to aging-related elevations in comorbidities (other potentially fatal conditions) as well as medication use.”

The researchers note these findings have important implications for clinicians and alcohol intervention programs.

“This is a crucial point,” says Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol researcher at Boston Medical Center at Brown University and co-author of the study. “Approximately a quarter of moderate drinkers report binge drinking, and most folks in the U.S. don’t typically drink in an average way or on a daily basis. Clinicians should understand that even among those with apparently modest average consumption, a number of these folks may be drinking in risky ways.”

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404;  Charles Holahan, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-3320.