We often assume that binge drinking is a problem associated with young people—the underage millennials guzzling Four Lokos—but in reality, deaths from alcohol poisoning are more common in older men, according to CDC data. It seems we have been putting too much emphasis on the problem of excessive drinking among youth and missing the true problem—alcoholism among older adults—in the process.
Binge Drinking and Alcohol Poisoning—The Basics
Alcohol poisoning and binge drinking are both best explained through blood-alcohol content (BAC), which is simply a measure of how much alcohol there is in your blood, generally expressed as a percentage. The definition of binge drinking is drinking enough to bring your BAC up to 0.08 percent or higher, which is ordinarily five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in the same time period for women.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when somebody drinks so much that crucial brain regions involved in controlling things like breathing, heart rate and body temperature start to shut down, possibly leading to death. Although this can vary notably, having a BAC in excess of 0.31 percent presents a significant risk of death from alcohol poisoning, with loss of consciousness also being common. Vomiting, seizures, slow heart rate, difficulty breathing, low body temperature and an impaired gag reflex are all signs of potentially fatal alcohol poisoning. The amount of alcohol you would need to drink to reach this level depends on your weight, your gender and the speed of your drinking, but the BAC is around four times higher than the amount that constitutes a binge. By definition, all alcohol poisoning deaths are ultimately a result of bingeing.
Alcohol Poisoning Deaths in the U.S.
The statistics on alcohol poisoning deaths may run contrary to many people’s expectations of who is most at risk. Overall—from 2010 to 2012—there were over 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths per year in the U.S., working out to six alcohol poisoning deaths per day. Three-quarters of these deaths occur in adults aged 35 to 64, with just 5 percent occurring in those aged 15 to 24, who many of us would assume were the primary age group of concern. In fact, more of those who died of alcohol poisoning were 65 or older.
The most at-risk age group was those aged 45 to 54, who made up 34 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths in the studied time period. Twenty-one percent of those who died were 35- to 44-year-olds, and another 21 percent were 55- to 64-year-olds, with 25- to 34-year-olds accounting for another 13 percent of all poisoning deaths. The youngest drinkers were actually the least likely to die from alcohol poisoning. Across the data, men made up three-quarters of all alcohol poisoning deaths.
Binge Drinking in the U.S.
Binge drinking statistics are similarly surprising, although these do implicate young drinkers more than the poisoning stats. Overall, one in six U.S. adults binge drinks around four times per month, consuming an average of eight drinks per binge, and about half of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. is in the form of bingeing. Again, men are more likely to binge than women.
The age breakdown shows that while adults aged 18 to 34 are more likely to binge drink, those aged 65 or older actually binge drink more often, about five to six times per month. Similarly, college-age Americans are well-known binge drinkers (and they do binge regularly), but seven in 10 episodes of binge drinking involve adults 26 and over.
Drinking Among Older Adults: An Under-Recognized Issue
The statistics seem to contradict the focus of many campaigns against binge drinking, which tend to focus on younger drinkers. In comparison, awareness campaigns aimed at older drinkers tend to cover the risk of drunk driving, and alcohol ads aimed at older drinkers simply have a “sip responsibly” disclaimer and little else. Although there are very good reasons that youth should be warned about the dangers of excessive drinking, and it goes without saying that drunk driving is a serious problem that should be addressed in awareness-raising campaigns, it’s clear that a much larger issue is being overlooked.
The reason excessive drinking is a particular concern in older adults is that over time, the physical health risks associated with drinking mount. In other words, the deterioration to bodily systems and organs from alcohol consumption gets progressively worse over a lifetime of excess, and the risk of death increases. However, “sip responsibly” doesn’t quite cover it, because many adults don’t realize that their drinking habits are unhealthy.
Warn Youths, but Don’t Forget Older Drinkers
It’s worth stressing again that warnings to youths about the risks of binge drinking are important, particularly because their brains are still developing and the drinking habits they establish will likely continue into older age, but we shouldn’t forget about older drinkers. The statistics tell us that the biggest opportunity for reducing the deaths caused by alcohol poisoning is to help older drinkers realize what qualifies as excessive drinking and the very real consequences it can have. Maybe even more importantly, we need to all make an effort to identify people we know who may be drinking too much and help them either moderate their drinking or get them the help they need to regain control.