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Binge drinking rates in U.S. down, but 'intensity' on the rise

When Americans decide to get "hammered," they are going at it much harder than in years past, researchers found in a recent study.

By E.J. Mundell, HealthDay News
Binge drinking rates in U.S. down, but 'intensity' on the rise
The number of Americans who told researchers they engaged in binge drinking in the previous month has dropped slightly -- from 18.9 percent to 18 percent -- but the intensity with which they drink is reaching dangerous levels. Photo by kaicho20/Pixabay

While the frequency at which Americans binge drink has declined slightly over the past decade, the number of drinks they imbibe during a binge is rising to dangerous levels, new research shows.

In the new study, binge drinking was defined as five or more drinks on one occasion by men or four or more drinks for women.

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Between 2011 and 2017, the percentage of Americans who said they had engaged in binge drinking over the past month fell from 18.9 percent to 18 percent, according to a team led by Dafna Kanny of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But when Americans do decide to get "hammered," they are going at it much harder than in years past, the study team found.

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Adding up all the drinks consumed during the average binge over the course of a year, the researchers found that, "from 2011 to 2017, the total number of binge drinks consumed by U.S. adults who reported binge drinking increased significantly, from 472 to 529." That's a 12 percent jump in the "intensity" of the average binge.

Most of this increase occurred among Americans aged 35 and over, Kanny's team noted.

In fact, the intensity of the average binge-drinking episode has actually fallen among college-age Americans -- from 619 annual drinks in 2011 to 545 by 2017.

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However, among Americans aged 35 to 44, that trend was reversed: Annual booze consumption during binges rose from 468 in 2011 to 593 six years later -- a nearly 27 percent rise. A similar rise of about 23 percent was seen among Americans aged 45 to 64, the researchers said.

Men still binge drink more than women, but the intensity of each binge rose for both genders, the study found.

The numbers are worrying to one doctor who sees the tragic results of high alcohol intake firsthand.

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"Binge drinking is exceedingly dangerous due to the elevated risk of respiratory depression, aspiration, and a drop in blood pressure that may place people at higher risk of death," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

In one such celebrity case in 2011, 27-year-old pop singer Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning after a bout of binge drinking.

And, "with a greater number of binge drinks, people are also at higher risk for alcohol withdrawal, which, unlike opiate withdrawal, can be deadly," Glatter noted.

He added that when people get very drunk, it also ups the odds that they might reach for illicit drugs such as opioids, which raises health risks even higher.

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Which populations are at special risk for high-intensity binge drinking? According to the new study, rates of consumption are rising fastest among poorer, less-educated Americans. Between 2011 and 2017, total drinks per binge jumped by about 46 percent among adults without a high school diploma, and by nearly 24 percent for those who made less than $25,000 per year, Kanny's team said.

The researchers did find that binge drinking rates were lower in states with tougher booze laws.

Dr. Teresa Murray Amato, who directs emergency medicine at Northwell Health's Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in New York City, agreed that legal controls on alcohol can save lives.

"Increasing taxes on alcohol, regulating the number and concentration of alcohol outlets in communities, and enforcing minimum legal drinking age laws are effective ways to decrease binge drinking," she said.

The study was published in the Jan. 17 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

More information

For more on binge drinking, head to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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