You might not think of binge drinking as an issue affecting older adults, but it is both surprisingly common and on the rise. Understand why this habit is so dangerous, and what you can do to get help if you need it.
The UK government’s recent removal of all legal restrictions regarding Covid-19, including mandated lockdowns and isolation requirements, has signaled that both people and policies are moving beyond the pandemic. Unfortunately, however, the lingering effects of the pandemic, including its impacts on potentially problematic coping mechanisms, are all too present.
Alcohol use, including binge drinking, increased greatly during Covid-19 lockdowns, as many sought to alleviate boredom, fear, and loneliness. According to a recent UK study, alcohol consumption among people over 50 is the most concerning as half of this population reported that they are drinking at a level that could damage their health. Knowing just how much alcohol use constitutes binge drinking, and having a clear understanding of the risks, can help you assess whether you are putting your future in danger with your drinking.
Binge Drinking in the UK Among Those Over 50
Binge drinking has long been a serious issue in the UK, and the stresses of Covid have made it even worse. Binge drinking is defined as consuming more than five drinks in one sitting for men, and more than four drinks for women.
A recent study found that binge drinking amongst the entire population increased from 10.8% between 2017-2019 to 16.2% during lockdown. Another study found that more than four million people over 50 are binge drinking at least once a week, and that 23.7% of those 50 and up were either alcohol dependent or at high risk for dependency. In fact, according to national statistics, people over the age of 55 are actually more likely to drink at dangerous levels.
This may be surprising, as binge drinking is often associated with partying amongst younger generations. However, a variety of stressors including anxiety around aging, lack of a clear schedule or a sense of purpose post-retirement, the development of other health issues, or the loss of family or friends can all factor heavily into dangerous levels of drinking in your later years
Complicating Factors of Binge Drinking for Older Adults
Aging already brings a variety of physical changes, some of which are further affected by alcohol. These can include things such as:
- Heightened sensitivity to alcohol – for some, aging can lower one’s tolerance for alcohol, making them more susceptible to its effects. This can lead to overconsumption and a higher probability for alcohol-related accidents.
- Increased health issues – aging naturally increases the possibility of developing certain health conditions, some of which can be worsened by heavy alcohol use, such as memory problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, liver problems, and mood disorders
- Drug interactions – as people age, they may need to take prescription medication for chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, or sleep issues. Alcohol can negatively interact with certain medications, such as pain medication, cough syrup, cold and allergy medication, drugs to treat mental health issues like anxiety and depression, sleep aids, acetaminophen and aspirin.
Short-Term Risks of Binge Drinking
Because binge drinking involves the consumption of large amounts of alcohol at one time, the body can become overwhelmed by its toxic effects, leading to serious short-term risks including:
- Lowered levels of electrolytes
- Extremely lowered blood sugar levels
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Inflammation of the stomach, pancreas and liver
- Blackouts and severe motor impairment that could lead to increased risk of injury or accidents
Alcohol poisoning is also possible as a result of binge drinking and can occur even to those who have developed a tolerance for alcohol, or those who have had a long history of alcohol use. Without immediate treatment, alcohol poisoning can be fatal.
Long-Term Risks of Binge Drinking
The effects of binge drinking over the long-term are cumulative, so the more frequently you drink to excess, the more likely you are to significantly, and perhaps permanently, damage your health. Being aware of the physical and mental risks, as well as the potential for addiction, are very important in assessing whether you need to take action to cut back on your drinking.
Risk of Physical Impacts
Alcohol has well-documented effects on major organs, particularly the heart, liver, pancreas, and brain. Some of the long-term physical risks that arise from sustained binge-drinking include:
- Chronic high blood pressure
- Increased potential for stroke
- Liver disease, such as cirrhosis, fibrosis, steatosis (fatty liver) or alcoholic hepatitis
- Weakened immune system
- Increased potential for developing certain cancers
The brain is one of the organs most affected by heavy alcohol use, as alcohol can damage or destroy elements in the brain’s communication system called neurons. This negatively impacts general motor skills, breathing, balance, and the ability to process and retain information, which results in lasting effects to your memory, cognition, and physical abilities. Alcohol also causes an increase in the levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, thought to be a key factor in the development of addiction.
Risk of Dependence
Though not everyone who binge drinks has an addiction, the practice of binge drinking significantly increases the potential to develop one. If you are noticing that you are unable to cut back or stop drinking, having strong cravings for alcohol, developing a tolerance for alcohol, or that your drinking is impacting your health, work or social life, you may have an addiction.
Risk of Mental Health Problems
Over time, alcohol can have significant impacts on mood, with long-term use associated with an increased risk of serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Many people drink to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, only to find them worsened when the euphoric effects of alcohol wear off. This is due to the reduction in key neurotransmitters that help regulate mood, which occurs as a result of repeated alcohol use.
Strong feelings of anxiety and depression following a binge drinking session may lead a person to drink again to “take the edge off,” leading to a problematic cycle that never addresses the root causes of depression and anxiety, or the role that alcohol plays in actually fueling those feelings.
So You’d Like to Stop Binge Drinking: What to Do
If you are coming to terms with the fact that you may be drinking at dangerous levels, coming up with a concrete plan on how to break this habit is critical in redirecting old behaviours. Talking to an addiction specialist is a safe and effective way to begin this process. They can help you assess whether you have a physical dependence on alcohol that would require a supervised detox, and offer both guidance and support during your recovery.
Professional support will also allow you to explore the reasons why you drink, and address those in order to help permanently move away from binge drinking, and towards a future where your physical and mental health is in top form.
Finding a Different Way Forward at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is a drug and alcohol rehab in Thailand specifically designed to help people overcome addiction and mental health disorders and learn to experience life in a healthier, more resilient way. The Dawn takes a holistic approach to addiction treatment, blending both effective psychotherapies with proven wellness practices to heal and strengthen both body and mind.
Our highly trained, compassionate staff has worked with people of all ages and stages of life to address their problems with addiction and create a new way forward. You’ll receive personalised attention throughout your stay at The Dawn to ensure that your treatment plan is fully customised and regularly updated, leading to a successful, lasting recovery.
Call us today to learn more about how we can work with you towards better health.