When you think of binge drinkers, you probably think of college students. Young adults, flush with their first taste of adult freedoms and usually inexperienced with alcohol are known for overindulging once they hit campus. While the vast majority of college students survive four years of school with little more than hangovers, it seems that stories of alcohol-related tragedies, including death from alcohol poisoning, are all too common.
However, according to a new study just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young adults are not the age group most likely to die from alcohol poisoning. The CDC found that between 2010 and 2012, nearly 7,000 people died from alcohol poisoning — and of those deaths, only about 5 percent were between the ages of 15 and 24. The greatest number of deaths was among those between the ages of 35 and 64; about 75 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths occurred in this age group, with the vast majority of the victims males.
The CDC attributes these surprising results to a number of factors. The greatest number of alcohol poisonings occurred in rural isolated areas (Alaska had the highest percentage of poisoning deaths per million residents), leading researchers to suspect that distance from emergency services plays a role in survival rates. However, of even greater concern to the researchers, and many doctors, is the fact that so many older Americans are dying from alcohol poisoning means that even older adults are binge drinking on a regular basis — a habit that has dire consequences for their health.
America’s Drinking Problem
According to the federal government, moderate alcohol consumption means no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men. Binge drinking, on the other hand is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as a pattern of drinking that brings the blood alcohol level to 0.8 within two hours; usually this equates to about four drinks in two hours for women, or five drinks for men. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a bit broader in its definition of binge drinking, saying that consuming more than five drinks on the same occasion in the course of one day.
Occasional episodes of binge drinking aren’t necessarily a problem, although it might not be good for you; after all, most drinking adults have overindulged at one time or another, and felt no ill effects other than a hangover and misguided confidence in their dancing abilities. However, SAMHSA defines heavy drinking as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least five of the last thirty days. In other words, heavy drinking is regularly engaging in binge drinking.
And it’s this heavy, excessive alcohol consumption that is a major public health problem in the US. According to the CDC, the 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths each year are just the tip of the iceberg, as an additional 85,000 deaths can be attributed to alcohol-related auto accidents, liver disease, and cancer. In addition, more than $230 billion in health care and legal costs are directly attributable to excess consumption.
Beyond Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning, which is marked by lowered heart rate, slow or irregular breathing, vomiting, seizures, blue-tinged skin, reduced body temperature, and in most cases, unconsciousness, is just one of the many potential consequences of heavy drinking. Many serious health issues are either caused by or exacerbated by heavy drinking, including:
- Cardiovascular disease. Heavy drinking can contribute to blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
- Cirrhosis of the liver.Excess alcohol causes scarring on the surface of the liver, which prevents it from functioning normally.
- CancerWhen alcohol is consumed, the body converts it into acetaldehyde, a carcinogen that affects the throat, esophagus, mouth, breasts, and colon.
- Epilepsy. Alcohol use has been linked to epilepsy. In addition, epileptics who take medication to control their seizures may find that the medication is less effective and they have convulsions on a more regular basis.
- Pancreatitis.Inflammation of the pancreas leads to severe abdominal pain and diarrhea.
- High blood pressure.
- Alcoholic neuropathy.Heavy drinking can cause nerve damage, which leads to a host of issues including incontinence, constipation, and erectile dysfunction, which is usually irreversible and must be treated with medication.
The good news, though, according to researchers, is that while about 30 percent of Americans meet the criteria for heavy drinking, almost 90 percent of them do not meet the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism. In other words, binge drinking too often does not necessarily make one an alcoholic. And several studies — including a large-scale government study involving 43,000 subjects — have revealed that the vast majority of people who are heavy drinkers are able to gain control of their drinking habits without rehabilitation or alcohol addiction treatment. In fact, one study even found that a short “intervention” from a doctor reiterating the health risks of excessive drinking is enough to spur most heavy drinkers to change their habits.
Still, for those who cannot get their drinking under control, alcohol treatment is necessary, as is avoiding alcohol altogether. Even those without a drinking problem should avoid binge drinking, and never drink alone. With the number of alcohol poisoning deaths rising, all it takes is one instance of overindulgence to create a tragedy.