The media portrays the average binge drinker as a reckless, hormone-obsessed teenager wearing a toga, or else, as a homeless crazed person staggering down the street. But in fact, binge drinking cuts across class and age lines, and it’s a lot more common than previously thought. Plus, what constitutes a “binge” might need some serious reconsideration, as evidence indicates that binge drinkers imbibe far more than previously assumed.
The Centers for Disease Control recently released results of a telephone survey that involved almost half a million individuals.1 The researchers found that one out of every four teens and young adults up to age 34 admitted to binge drinking within the previous month, as did one out of every six people over the age of 35. In other words, 38 million Americans ranked among the binge-drinking public at the time of the survey.2 Experts assume that the prevalence rate actually is even higher, since records in the US suggest that at least half of all alcohol sold gets consumed in binge-drinking episodes.
And here’s the real kicker. While the standard definition of binge drinking is consuming more than five drinks at a time if you’re a guy and four drinks if you’re a woman, the survey found that in fact, the average binge drinker actually consumes eight drinks at a time; nine drinks for those aged 18-24. That’s a whole lot of high-calorie liquid to snarf in one episode, to say nothing of all the alcohol content. No wonder we’re piling on the pounds. And we’re not talking about a once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon. The average binge drinker repeats the fun four times a month, each time downing eight or nine drinks in a single episode.
It’s no secret that excessive drinking can lead to bad things. According to the CDC report, it directly causes 40,000 deaths each year in the US and in 2005, cost about $223.5 billion in losses.3 Incidentally, deaths from automobile accidents only totaled 33,808 in 20094 — and how many of those deaths resulted actually from binge drinking? On the other hand, while 40,000 deaths might seem insignificant compared, say, to the five million deaths worldwide each year related to smoking, the numbers tell only part of the story. Because beyond the car crashes and accidents and deadly episodes of violence that episodic binge drinking may provoke, it also can lead to serious, life-threatening health problems — problems not reflected in those statistics.
As Jon Barron has reported before, binge drinking in adolescence may lead to early cognitive decline, depression, and osteoporosis later on. Studies tie binge drinking to cancer, and the CDC report cites suicide, hypertension, acute myocardial infarction, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, and sudden infant death syndrome as possible consequences. And since most binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent, it’s fairly likely that they don’t consider themselves to have a drinking problem. Most binge drinkers view their indulgence as a recreational pursuit rather than an alcohol-related disease.
Who are the binge drinkers? Once again, the report yielded surprises. For one thing, those making upwards of $75,000 a year binge drink with the greatest frequency, although people just above and just below the poverty level tend to consume the most at a single time. Geographically, the heaviest binge drinking goes on in Alaska, New England, the Midwest, Hawaii, and Washington, DC. As for demographics, if you assume it’s the teens driving up the numbers, you’d better change your tune and start singing, “What’s the matter with my memaw?” It turns out that seniors — those over the age of 65 — actually binge with more frequency than their grandkids do, up to five or six times a month. Actually, surprising as that fact appears, Jon Barron has reported on drinking among elders before, noting a study that found almost a quarter of men aged 50-64 had indulged in binge drinking in the previous 30 days. It’s enough to make you wonder what’s really going on in Del Webb’s Sun City.
Why is all this wanton indulgence going on, given the potential perils? Beyond the fact that some drinks simply taste good, it seems obvious that chugging to excess with regularity helps to soothe anxiety and take the edge off of life’s overwhelming pressures. We drink to excess for the same reasons that we overeat, for the same reasons that we spend so many hours glued to the internet; for the same reasons that a tenth of us take antidepressants. Yes, even though alcohol is a depressant, we drink when we’re depressed. We drink because we want to feel better. The sad truth, though, is that binging four or more times a month may feel good in the short run, but in the long term, there will be “health to pay.”
1 Stobbe, Mike. “College-age bingers down an average of 9 drinks.” 11 January 2012. San Francisco Chronicle. 2 February 2012. < http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/01/10/MN4J1MNFH0.DTL>
2 Cappon, Colleen. “CDC Report: Binge Drinking Rates in U.S. ‘Alarming.'” 10 January 2012. Fox News. 2 February 2012. < http://www.foxnews.com/health/2012/01/10/cdc-report-binge-drinking-rates-in-us-alarming/>
3 “Vital Signs: Binge Drinking Prevalence, Frequency, and Intensity Among Adults — United States, 2010.” 13 January 2012. CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2 February 2012. < http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6101a4.htm#tab1>
4 NCSA Data Resource Website. “Fatality Analysis Reporting System. NHTSA 2 Feb 2012. <http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx>