First author Andrew Plunk of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues tracked the long-term drinking behavior of more than 39,000 people who began consuming alcohol in the 1970s, when some states had legal drinking ages as low as 18.
Binge drinking was defined for the study as five or more drinks on an occasion for men, and four or more for women.
The study showed Americans who lived in states with lower minimum drinking ages weren't more likely to consume more alcohol overall or to drink more frequently than those from states where the drinking age was 21, but when they did drink, they were more likely to drink heavily.
"It wasn't just that lower minimum drinking ages had a negative impact on people when they were young," Plunk said in a statement. "Even decades later, the ability to legally purchase alcohol before age 21 was associated with more frequent binge drinking."
The effect was most pronounced among men who did not attend college.
"Binge drinking on college campuses is a very serious problem," Plunk said. "But it's also important not to completely forget about young people who aren't on college campuses."
The study was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.