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One in 10 older adults binge drinks, increasing health risks

"A lot of patients don't realize that as they get older, their body becomes more sensitive to alcohol," researchers said.
Image: Man drinking at bar
Binge drinking can worsen some chronic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, according to experts.Alan Currie / Getty Images/iStockphoto

About 1 in 10 older adults engages in binge drinking, putting them at greater risk for falls and other medical problems.

That's according to new research published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

"We focus so much on young people and their risky drinking," said senior author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor in the department of population health at NYU Langone Health. "But this research reminds us that we also have to keep an eye on the older population."

Palamar and colleagues analyzed data on 10,927 people over age 65 who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2015 and 2017.

An estimated 10.6 percent of the participants reported binge drinking — defined as five or more drinks at once for men, and four or more for women — within the previous 30 days, the study found.

"A lot of patients don't realize that as they get older, their body becomes more sensitive to alcohol," said lead study author Dr. Benjamin Han, an assistant professor in the department of medicine's division of geriatric medicine and palliative care at NYU Langone Health. "They still think they can drink the same way, but the risks increase quite a bit."

Indeed, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that people over age 65, who are otherwise healthy with no chronic diseases, limit themselves to no more than three drinks per day.

However, according to the National Council on Aging, 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic condition, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes.

Binge drinking can worsen some chronic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, according to experts.

"If you drink regularly and you are taking blood thinners, then there's going to be a risk of bleeding in your stomach," explained Dr. Ronan Factora, a geriatrician at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the new research. "Binge drinking can also make your sugars go up, which can create problems for people with diabetes."

It can also lead to other issues, such as forgetting to take medications.

"A lot of patients are on six, seven or more medications," Han said. "When they binge drink, they often don't remember to take their medicines."

The research also found cannabis use was higher among binge drinkers — a worrisome mixture, experts said.

"Combining marijuana and binge drinking increases the risk for falls," Palamar said.

Even without the added effects of alcohol or pot, falls are already the leading cause of broken bones, trauma and deaths among older adults, according to the National Council on Aging.

Outside experts said it's crucial for physicians to talk to their older patients about drug and alcohol use.

"If you don't look for it, you don't find it. And if you don't find it, you can't do anything about it," said Dr. Michael Wasserman, a geriatrician in Thousand Oaks, California, and a member of the nonprofit American Geriatrics Society.

Wasserman told NBC News much more research needs to be done on people over age 85 in particular.

"The field of geriatrics to me is still 'frontier medicine,' because we don't have enough data," Wasserman said. "Historically, we just haven't seen this level of drinking in this population."

There is evidence that rates of excessive drinking are slowly rising in older adults. The same group of researchers published a similar study in 2017, examining binge drinking among older adults from 2005 to 2014.

Although the two studies asked slightly different questions about alcohol use, less than 9 percent of people over age 65 said they'd engaged in binge drinking during the past month in the previous study, compared to the more than 10 percent found in the current study.

"Binge drinking is a lot more common than we think," Factora said, adding that the new study may underestimate the true percentage of older adult binge drinkers. The data relied on self-reported alcohol intake, and some may have chosen not to disclose their drinking habits.

What's certain is that doctors should be addressing the topic with their older patients.

"Residents and medical students may feel a little bit awkward asking a 90-year-old grandmother if she binge drinks or uses drugs or other substances," Han said.

"But if [she] drinks too much and falls, there's going to be a lot more damage done than [if] someone who is 21 falls," Palamar added.

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