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Experts Have Overlooked Binge-Drinking Patterns

Studies linking moderate drinking to potential health benefits may have failed to take into account the issue of binge drinking among older “moderate” drinkers, a new study shows.

Previous research, the investigators say, has focused on average drinking levels rather than drinking patterns. And that, the investigators say, hides underlying factors such as heavy episodic or weekend binge drinking.

The study also found that a pattern of occasional or binge drinking can be deadly: people who engage in it have more than twice the odds of death over 20 years than do those who really do drink moderately.

The results of the new research will be published in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Binge drinking is increasingly being recognized as a significant public health concern," said Charles J. Holahan, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and a corresponding author for the study. "In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently concluded that binge drinking is 'a bigger problem than previously thought.' Ours is one of the first studies to focus explicitly on an older population in examining binge drinking among, on average, moderate drinkers."

“It's not just how much you drink but how you drink," added Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol researcher at Boston Medical Center at Boston University.

For this study, researchers used data from a larger project examining late-life patterns of alcohol consumption and drinking problems. The sample analyzed 334 men and 112 women aged 55 to 65. Seventy-four of the subjects engaged in episodic heavy drinking, and 372 were regular moderate drinkers. Death across a 20-year follow-up period was confirmed primarily by death certificate.

The findings highlight the importance of focusing on drinking patterns, as well as absolute amounts of ethanol consumed, as predictors of health and mortality outcomes among older adults.

"We found that among older adults, those who engage in heavy episodic drinking – even when average consumption is moderate – show significantly increased total mortality risk compared to regular moderate drinkers," said Holahan. "These findings demonstrate that, among older adults, drinking patterns need to be addressed along with overall consumption in order to understand alcohol's health effects."

"Binge drinking concentrates alcohol's toxicity and is linked to mortality by damaging body organs and increasing accident risk," he added. "Binge drinking may be additionally risky for older adults due to aging-related elevations in comorbidities as well as medication use."

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