Binge Drinking isn’t just for College Kids Anymore

Black line art illustration of a drunk man with a beverage.

The typical picture of a binge drinker may look as much like a middle-age man working long hours as it does a college fraternity boy partying late at night.
Doctors are increasingly focusing on that older population after years of placing a higher priority on experimenting adolescents and young alcoholics. Evidence is emerging that high-pressure jobs push millions of people toward binge drinking, and deaths from alcohol abuse escalate as people get older.
A new study from 14 countries published in the British Medical Journal found that people who work more than 48 hours a week are more likely to drink to excess — defined as 14 drinks a week for women and more than 21 for men. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in a report last week that six people die daily from alcohol poisoning, mainly those ages 35 to 65.
“Drinking is a fast and easy way to shake off work. That’s where the problem comes,” said Cassandra Okechukwu, an assistant professor at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “We have defined it and call it risky alcohol use. We aren’t paying as much attention to that as we pay to the definition of alcoholism. We need to pay more attention.”
Numerous studies show regular drinking, as long as it doesn’t turn into a binge, is healthy, especially for the heart. While red wine is generally touted for its health benefits, beer and liquor have also been shown to ward off various medical conditions. Doctors warn against starting to drink or consuming more for the potential health benefits, and point out that excessive consumption can lead to a raft of ailments ranging from cancer to sudden death.
Poisoning Deaths
The numbers on excessive drinking don’t make sense right away, and they puzzle researchers. Young people are still more likely to binge drink — defined as five or more drinks in a few hours for men and four or more for women. People 65 and older who binge drink do it more frequently than other age groups.
The people dying of alcohol poisoning, however, are middle-aged. Three in four are men, the CDC found.
In a 2012 survey by the agency, 71 percent of Americans said they’d had a drink in the past year, while about 56 percent had done so in the past month. There are a small and growing number of people who drink excessively at one sitting, and it’s not clear why, said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“We’re seeing a higher number of drinks per individual,” he said. “What’s growing is the intensity of drinking in a single bout. We are concerned about that. We haven’t figured out how to address it.”
Longer Hours
Working long hours may exacerbate the problem. The study in the BMJ found that people who worked 49 to 54 hours a week and 55 hours a week had an increased propensity of 13 percent and 12 percent, respectively, for risky drinking.
A glass of wine or a beer or two after the work is a common way to take the edge off after a tough day at the office. The problem is when it morphs into something more. For people who already drink, stress at work or home can lead to an even greater reliance on alcohol, said Sandra Brown, a psychology and psychiatry professor who’s vice chancellor for research at the University of California at San Diego.
“People develop tolerance when they drink regularly,” Brown said. “They don’t realize they are drinking more and put themselves in a more dangerous situation.”
Nationwide, alcohol is responsible for 88,000 deaths a year, making it the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.
Liver, Pancreas
For people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, the effects of alcohol can linger much longer than just a nasty hangover. It taxes the liver and the pancreas, and can lead directly to depression.
The damage from drinking can accumulate over a lifetime, with new risk factors appearing in middle age, said Joseph Lee, a medical director at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And while most people who have trouble drinking show signs when they’re young, that’s not always the case, he said.
“Just because you went through your college frat days unscathed, it doesn’t mean you have a free pass for the rest of your life,” Lee said. “We see a lot of people who always had a risk for addiction that didn’t manifest until something happened, like a promotion to a high-pressure job, a divorce or a death in the family.”
For middle-aged drinkers, the beer pong and drinking games they played when they were younger can simply carry over as they age and try to hold onto their “adolescent joys,” Koob said. They need to realize their brains and bodies have changed, however, and can’t handle it the same.
“When you are young, the pleasurable effects of alcohol are more rewarding and the hangovers are less,” Koob said. “As you get older, there is a switch over where the hangovers become more excruciating and the pleasurable effects become less. That’s when the demons come rushing out of the bottle.”