The problems with binge drinking over 30 years

June 23, 2022 – When you think of binge drinking, you probably imagine young college students overdoing it on big weekend bashes: kegs, shots, loud music, and bad behavior. And in fact, according to a nationwide survey, more than half of college students (53%) reported drinking in the past month, and about 33% engaged in binge drinking.

But, despite the dangerous drinking habits of college students, it is actually the more than 30 people who do the most.

New research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that most binge drinking occurs among adults 30 and older, with a recent uptick in the 50-plus crowd. While binge drinking is never a healthy practice, the bad effects go up with age.

For the purpose of the study, researchers defined binge drinking as more than five drinks on the same occasion. It is difficult to pinpoint the number of 30-year-olds that binge drinking is difficult, as it is common among people who drink at what is known as a moderate average level – defined as an average of no more than one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men.

Charles Holahan, Ph.D.

“This leads many drinkers to mistakenly assume that a moderate average level of alcohol use is safe, regardless of drinking pattern,” he says. “A secondary, but important, concern is that binge drinking research tends to target adolescents and students. However, most binge drinking occurs among adults over 30.”

The nuances can be a bit confusing, but Holahan says the study helps focus on the fact that moderate average consumption can include a binge pattern of drinking.

“For example, an average moderate drinker of one drink per day may achieve that average through a daily drink with food, or a risky pattern of seven drinks on a Saturday night,” he says.

Brooke Scheller, a doctor of clinical nutrition and a certified nutritionist, says that those 30-year-old and older binge drinkers often started their habits at a young age. “They may have started bingeing at the age of 15 or 16,” she says, “and carried that behavior directly to college and beyond. They have often programmed their brains to search for binge drinking in adults.”

This is especially true more often in the millennial generation, she says.

“This is a generation that has been through a lot of stressors,” Scheller says. “They lived through the 2008 recession, the pandemic, and are somewhat burnt out. At the same time, they are breaking many stigmas in the career world, and the traditional family lifestyle is not necessarily their thing. As a result, women alongside men have taken up heavier drinking.”

Your body above 30 on bingeing

In your 20s, the bad effects of bingeing come through your body pretty quickly – your body is moving forward. Unfortunately, for men and women who binge alcohol in adulthood, the health effects can be huge. “By this age, their livers may not be functioning as well as they could due to their history of bingeing,” Scheller says. “They may also have a history of poor diet.”

The results may include decreased brain volume, leading to changes in memory, focus, thinking skills, and even impact on the GI system.

“The gut is the center of the body,” says Scheller, “and binge drinking over time leads to persistent inflammation.”

When you drink, your body tends to take a “break” on systems other than those needed to get rid of the alcohol, because it is a toxic substance. “This can affect the whole body in different ways,” says Scheller. “If you have health care of any kind, they will be expanded in the short and long term.”

Holahan says that binge drinking differs from moderate drinking because of the higher blood alcohol concentration it produces.

“This can lead to health and social problems,” he says, including an increase in the chances of getting hurt, plus emotional or psychological problems from alcohol. Over time, it will also take more alcohol to get the same effects.

At the same time, says Holahan, most binge drinkers are not alcoholics. But they are more likely to have health or social problems than their more moderate drinking peers.

While binge drinking is different from alcoholism, it can be difficult to identify that you have a problem.

“Bingeing is often acceptable in social situations, friendships and work settings,” Scheller says. “But it’s good to ask if alcohol serves your purpose in life. No, consider if you need to make some changes.”

Examine whether alcohol affects your work or your mental health in a negative way. Also note if one drink tends to lead to the next, and if you have trouble closing the party.

“Alcohol creates a dopamine response and makes us want more,” Scheller says. “If you continue to binge, you can train your body for that behavior.”

The good news is that today there is a growing “nothing interesting” movement that makes it more socially acceptable to turn down drinks. Bars more often offer creative “mocktails”, and non-alcoholic beers, wines and so on have come a long way over the past ten years.

“There are a lot of people right now who might not like alcohol, so they explore life without it,” says Scheller. “Understanding how it can negatively impact your life can be powerful and help you make a difference.”

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