A drink a day does not keep the doctor away for older adults—or anyone—and binge drinking can open the door to a plethora of health problems. That's the finding of a new study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that also estimates more than 10% of older adults in America binge drank during the past month. With nearly 48 million adults over age 65 in the United States, per the 2015 Census, that means 4.8 million over-65s partook in this unhealthy habit in the past month.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL or grams per deciliter. This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men, and in approximately two hours.
Alcohol Makes Your Other Medical Problems Worse
Health risks are heightened in older adults who binge drink because this age group usually has chronic medical conditions, said the study's lead author, Benjamin Han, M.D., M.P.H, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine's Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care and the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.
Alcohol use at this too-high level can exacerbate disease, interact negatively with medications that a person may be taking, and complicate the process of disease management, explained Dr. Han. That makes it harder for the drinker's health care team to stay on top of their medical conditions.
In fact, the NIAAA says excessive long-term consumption of alcohol can:
- lead to cancers, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage
- worsen osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss, and mood disorders
- cause forgetfulness and confusion, which may look like Alzheimer's disease
- compromise safety, because it can impair judgment, coordination, and reaction time
How Much Drinking Is Too Much?
Dr. Han's research team used data from almost 11,000 adults over 65 who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2015 to 2017. The authors expressed concern because their findings, when compared with previous data, indicate an increase in binge drinking from 2006 to 2014, when the rate was between 7.7% and 9%.
In their new report, the researchers cited NIAAA's recommendation that older adults have no more than three drinks a day. That number is actually surprising to many since in September 2018, a massive, global, systematic analysis of 694 data sources and 592 studies, published in The Lancet, disrupted most previous thinking about "alcohol and health," concluding that "the safest level of drinking is none."
Not sure if your drinking is a problem? Ask yourself these questions about your behavior in the past year, per the NIAAA:
- Have you had times when you ended up drinking more or for longer than you intended?
- Have you more than once wanted to cut back or stop drinking, or maybe tried to and couldn’t?
- Have you spent a lot of time drinking or got sick afterward?
- Have you had cravings to drink?
- Have you found that drinking or your hangover got in the way of taking care of your family, home, job, or other obligations?
- Have you kept drinking even though it was causing family and friend trouble?
- Have you cut back on or stopped activities that were once important or interesting to you in order to drink?
- Have you more than once gotten into a situation where drinking upped your risk of getting hurt, such as when driving, using machinery, or having unsafe sex?
- Have you kept drinking even though it makes you feel depressed, anxious, or contributes to other health problems?
- Have you kept drinking even after experiencing a memory “blackout?”
- Have you found that your tolerance has gotten higher and you need to drink more than you used to in order to achieve the same effect?
- Have you found yourself experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, like sleep troubles, shakiness, irritability, nausea, sweating, anxiety, or depression?
If you answered yes to two or more, you may have alcohol use disorder, meaning your drinking causes harm or distress. And regardless, remember the magic number of three or fewer per day, per the NIAA’s recs.
How to Cut Back on Alcohol
The current study's authors encourage health care professionals to do more educating, screening, and intervening with their older patients. But it’s important that you as the patient are proactive about getting your drinking in check, too.
If you have a problem with alcohol, take these steps to get control of your drinking:
Tell yourself you can do this. There's a wealth of information online so take advantage. Enlist your loved ones to help cheer you on—a strong support system is key.
Go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Find a meeting near you and this venerable organization that has had so much worldwide success promises you won't be judged. The only requirement to join is that you want to stop drinking.
Ask for professional help. Talking to a psychologist or other mental health counselor may be just what you need, especially if your alcohol use is due to other psychological problems—many people use alcohol to mask their feelings. Ask your primary care provider or other provider for a referral, and also be sure to discuss any alcohol-related medical problems you might be experiencing. Medication from your doctor can help with detoxification, and other medications can reduce cravings that are a normal part of giving up alcohol when you've been drinking a long time. You can also call the 24-hour hotline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for help at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Hang in there. No one said this would be easy, but as others who have stopped drinking will attest, the long-term results are worth it.