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Six Americans die each day, on average, from drinking too much alcohol – and over a full year, the toll from fatal intoxications passes 2,220, the CDC reported Tuesday.
Binge drinking accounts for most of those lethal benders. But what’s most surprising about the death rate: The vast majority of cases don’t involve college-aged young adults, the group most often associated with binge drinking.
It's middle-aged white males, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
The CDC found that more than 75 percent of those 2,220 alcohol poisoning deaths occur among adults between the ages of 35 and 64. More than 75 percent of people who die from alcohol poisoning deaths are men, and nearly 70 percent are white people, the agency found.
"Alcohol poisoning is killing people across the lifespan but particularly men in the prime of their lives."
“Alcohol poisoning deaths are a heartbreaking reminder of the dangers of drinking too much alcohol,” Ileana Arias, CDC’s deputy principal director, said during a media briefing. “These are preventable deaths … Alcohol poisoning is killing people across the lifespan but particularly men in the prime of their lives.
“We were surprised that the majority … of poisoning groups was not in that (college-aged) group,” Arias added. “People tend to think that because they are not in the category that’s at high risk for binge drinking, they’re not then at danger for suffering the harms, including deaths.”
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CDC investigators read through the death certificates of people aged 15 and older who died from 2010 to 2012. This is the agency’s first study scrutinizing alcohol-poisoning death rates by age. As a result, CDC officials cannot say if the cases of lethal drinking episodes are increasing.
American pop culture, via hit movies like “The Hangover” series, has often poked fun at binge drinking, including among the very subset of Americans who are most at risk to die. To that point, the researchers urged that all U.S. residents be more aware that even one night of alcohol overindulgence can turn deadly. Too much alcohol in the body suppresses breathing.
Binge drinking is defined as drinking enough to bring the blood alcohol level to 0.08 percent, which puts drivers past the limit in all 50 states.
“Once one gets above that level of consumption, the risk of death from alcohol poisoning really goes up,” said Dr. Robert Brewer, the study’s co-author and the CDC’s Alcohol Program Lead.
“That’s one of the reasons why we think alcohol-poisoning deaths are such an important indicator of the work we need to do to prevent binge drinking. If we could eliminate binge drinking, we would dramatically reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning."
Geographically, clear patterns emerged from the numbers illustrating what might be called America’s binging belt.
Among the 10 states with the highest average annual number of alcohol poisoning deaths, eight are in the West: Alaska (46.5), New Mexico (32.7), Arizona (18.7), Wyoming (17.7), South Dakota (17.0), Utah (16.7), Colorado (14.4) and Oregon (12.7), the CDC found.
In some areas, binge drinking behavior is “strongly influenced by state and local laws governing the price and availability of alcohol, as well as other cultural and religious factors,” the CDC report reads.
Policies that boost prices and cut the clusters of retailers that make alcoholic beverages more available and accessible have been shown to reduce binge drinking in states, other studies have suggested.
In addition, “living in geographically isolated rural areas might increase the likelihood that a person with alcohol poisoning will not be found before death or that timely emergency medical services will not be available,” the CDC said.
"If we could eliminate binge drinking, we would dramatically reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning."
In addition to using blood alcohol levels, health experts define binge drinking as consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in one session for women and five or more for men. The drinks may include shots of liquor, glasses of wine or cans of beer.
More than 38 million American adults report they engage in binge drinking, on average, four times per month – and guzzle an average of eight drinks per spree, according to the CDC.
Most of the alcohol overdoses examined involved people for whom alcohol dependence was not listed as a contributing cause, the report noted.
That falls in line with previously known binge-drinking patterns.
Roughly two-thirds of people who admitted binge-drinking 10 or more times per month were not alcohol dependent, another recent study found.